Filling the Skills Gap with Workers over 50

By Drew Robb September 27, 2021
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older woman

​With people living longer and being in generally better shape in their golden years than their parents and grandparents were, people over age 50 represent a major talent pool for the IT industry.

According to the Urban Institute, only 12.9 percent of adults ages 65 and older have a job. With high demand for IT and digital talent, employers can make it easy for the aging population to reskill and have a new career path.  

"The pandemic led to a huge number of Americans choosing to retire early," said Tom Strong, director of employer activation for the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, a workforce development organization in Washington, D.C.

"Corporate executives need to examine the value proposition they are offering to current and prospective workers, and that includes thinking about workers over 50, who are likely underutilized at this time," Strong said.

Hard skills in areas like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, data analytics, digital marketing and user experience design are vital. But Strong noted that technology CEOs tell him they are far more concerned about a lack of employees with soft skills—communication, creative problem-solving and innovation, collaboration and teamwork, time management, and conflict management. Older workers may well possess these skills already.  

"Mature workers tend to come with experience and soft skills honed over decades of employment," Strong said. "Some have technical skills already but may need to be introduced to next-gen technology fields. Creative hiring and incentives can help companies take advantage of workers with these transferable skills."

Old Skills in Demand

In the world of IT, "legacy" skills are in demand, according to Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn.

"Many retired IT professionals can take care of, fix and support legacy equipment and software that continues to run in major financial institutions and in large enterprises," Schulz said. "Those in the over-50 crowd grew up in IT in environments that are not that different from what today is called DevOps, even though the terminology and tools are different. They are a bright bunch and can be brought up-to-date rapidly, should they wish a new challenge."

Even 15-year-old systems are now considered by many to be outdated. Many in IT, Schulz said, opted for early retirement or buyouts, or left to pursue other things. Employers need to offer them a reason to come back. This might be good pay, or a part-time, work-from-home, flexible schedule.

Hiring apps and HR bias, too, may be getting in the way. Many applicant filtering systems automatically eliminate people beyond a particular age, those who have gaps in their employment history or those with skills now deemed unwanted. Candidates with "outdated" IT skills, for instance, face a tough battle getting attention from recruiters. Similarly, interviewers are often younger and tend to regard candidates over 50 as "past it." Age bias can be hard to overcome.

"The technology being used to screen and filter candidates may be skipping over those who may be well-suited for employment," Schulz said. "Many great candidates may be slipping through the cracks due to how the selection process is defined."

Homemakers and IT

Parents who left the workforce to raise families and now want to return may face prejudice on two fronts: They have IT skills that are labeled as legacy and have a massive gap in their resume—sometimes up to a quarter of a century. Yet lurking there might be a brilliant mind and talent that could be easily reskilled.

"Once returning homemakers are reskilled, they have an advantage in some environments that are trying to extend diversity in multiple dimensions," Schulz said. 

Drew Robb is a freelance writer in Clearwater, Fla., specializing in IT and business.

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