By Jack Ganssle, Embedded.com
A suit against IBM alleges the company targeted older engineers when
terminating 988 employees from a Vermont facility last year. The complaint
suggests that workers aged 45 and older were axed disproportionately. The
company, of course, denies any such action or intent.
I have no idea if there's any validity to the suit. But in the 30 years I've
been in this business one constant is the sense that older engineers get
replaced by recent grads. I've been unable to find any hard data to support this
fear, but it sure seems job security diminishes as one ages.
Bosses are in a tough position when it's time to trim the workforce, though.
One old fart may command twice the salary of a newcomer. Is the more mature
worker twice as productive? My sense is that after a few years of OJT a young
engineer, especially one writing code, is not substantially less efficient than
the oldie -- at least doing routine work.
But special circumstances do arise where experience quickly swats down a
problem that might baffle younger folks for a long time. That weird race
condition, intermittent priority inversions, and other complex phenomena yield
to deep knowledge and prior experience much more readily than to enthusiastic
But such events are rare and largely fall under a boss's radar screen. Need
to cut $200k from the department's payroll? It looks more humane and seems
easier to eliminate two expensive old folks instead of five youngsters.
It's discouraging to note that one article about the IBM dispute is adjacent
to an ad soliciting a senior systems architect who "will make fundamental
contributions within the fields of biology, chemistry, and medicine." The ad
asks for the applicant's GPAs, GREs, and (no kidding) SAT scores. How many
45-year-old engineers remember their SATs? And what difference could those
ancient numbers make? This carefully worded message clearly targets youngsters,
barely skirting equal employment opportunity laws.
Compensation for the job is "above market," the ad says. In other words,
invent whole new technologies in three different fields for a few bucks more
than your colleagues. But prepare to be tossed on the scrap heap when a few gray
Do older folks' experience and wisdom translate into more corporate profits?
I don't know but have certainly seen many instances where the old salt quickly
solves what had appeared to be an intractable problem.
Do companies have a social responsibility to create and maintain markets for
engineers of all ages? In our capitalistic economy, probably not.
Like the cardboard cup one casually tosses in the trashbin after hitting the
Starbucks, engineers are disposable commodities. Experience and wisdom, those
two products of age and maturity, are as valued as an old 4-inch wafer fab.
And I do know that that is a tragedy.
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development
issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their
embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His
website is http://www.ganssle.com/.