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Could ‘Silver Coders’ solve the skills shortage in tech?

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Gareth Jones, The Chemistry Group’s CIO and head of labs, explores the effect of ageism in IT and the future for the ‘Silver Coder’ within the world of tech hiring.

Let’s get one thing straight: Tech in 2017 is predominantly a game for the younger dwellers at the drinking pool.

We are obsessed with the new spirits of business; the Gen Y and Millennials of this world, as you might well know them. Storming through the gates of our offices with an x, y, z checklist of how the workplace should be, how the coffee should be ground, and how the Mac should rest upon the glass table, it’s all rather glamorous. And with wider media and HR professionals clambering to gear companies towards this next generation of millennials, I can’t help thinking we’re all missing something important.

Tech in Newcastle: Tackling the skills and office shortage

Now, I should begin by saying that hiring millennials can obviously be a great thing. The same as hiring any other demographic, right? I even like glass tables, too. But with an ageing population buoyed by better healthcare, smarter personal health and a general increase in wellness, prioritising one age demographic over another seems as illogical as it is unfair.

One of the defining elements of the tech industry has always been its ability to spot trends, and define its output accordingly. However, when it comes to analysing trends in population demographics, and then applying this to its hiring, the tech industry falls short of something normally so integral to its makeup. Indeed, by 2050, it is expected the over-50s will be the largest participating age group in the workforce. And as early as 2022, the number of over 50s in the US work place will be nearly double that of 1992.

Why isn’t tech adapting as an industry?

Well, it can’t be that at 00:01 on the morning of a worker’s 51st birthday, their propensity to learn new information dies. And it also can’t be that older workers are incapable of keeping up with the strenuous physical activity required with all that typing and clicking. So, really, it points me to only one, rather uncomfortable reality: Tech is inherently ageist.

With it, we’ve erected inherently discriminating screening processes for candidates that leaves the industry at risk of missing out on exceptionally talented people.

What can be done?

Forcing a change in this instance, while not easy, is actually relatively straight forward. Tech needs to firstly highlight ageism as the ugly, archaic phenomenon it is, and then secondly move forward to educate tech firms as to the long-term positives that profile-based hiring can bring.

At the moment, the harsh reality is that tech hiring is a self-fulfilling, stuffy narrative. Much like the casting call for a Disney princess (pre-Princess and the Frog), decision makers wield a pompous glass slipper that, unfortunately, fits a woefully small amount of feet. Instead of it being a question of fit and personality, words like ‘coding’ and ‘engineering’ – for all their limitations in terms of how quickly these skills fly out of date – shout louder than the rest, bruising their way to influence the outcome of a hiring process.

I witnessed this need for education first-hand when I spoke to a group of tech founders and product managers last year. Interestingly, when I asked this audience of some 300+ people how many were assessing broader, ‘softer’ elements such as values, motivations and behaviours in their potential recruits, only one hand went up. But worse still were the excuses thrown back at me as to why this was the case. Answers such as “we’ll do that once we’re bigger and can afford it” seemed to be a favourite for this closely huddled group of industry professionals.

It’s just one small snapshot of where we are as an industry. But it provides an important reflection of how there is a vast misunderstanding within tech as to what talent actually looks like and how this is greatly hindering the industry’s progress as a whole. Of course, while defaulting to the, “let’s get some kick-ass, young and hungry coders” might feel like an ambitious, lofty approach to hiring, it’s also fundamentally flawed. Not only does this approach limit your talent pool, it also ignores a not-so-hidden secret: coding isn’t rocket science.

Ultimately, skills can be learnt, but the style, commitment, and personality integral to someone’s long-term performance can’t. And when it comes to coding, the fine line between success and failure doesn’t come down to some divine right at DNA level. It can be learnt. And shocking as may well be, it can be learnt at any age of someone’s life.

Realising this important, but relatively basic truth, about what talent looks like is a crucial step that tech needs to take to combat the ageist underbelly that is plaguing the industry moving forward.

What might an age-neutral tech world look like?

Making light work of a skills shortage, might the ‘Silver Coder’ sweep in to save the day for tech companies both in the UK and abroad? Will the new tech solutions of the future continue to be built by trendy young things hanging out in cool offices in Shoreditch or The Valley? Or will the coding behind the next Spotify emerge from a collection of freelancing silver coders, holed up in an old folk’s home in Camberley? A cool one, of course.

The truth is we won’t know until we get there. But if history tells us anything, removing people with experience from any form of infrastructure, be that societal or commercial, can be hazardous. While more experienced hands can sometimes hold back progress, our efforts to move forward quickly and put our destiny in the hands of younger generations doesn’t always pay off. Energy and enthusiasm are sometimes no substitute for experience, especially that cold, hard experience of failure.

The bottom line is that by the time we get near 2025/30 and beyond, the employed landscape will look very different. Technology will be a key driver and employer; many manual or task-related jobs will have disappeared and 25%+ of our workforce will be over 50. If we don’t re-invest in retraining and re-skilling this demographic group to form a fully utilisable chunk of the workforce in IT, then we could be facing a social Armageddon as this group falls into poverty and social isolation.

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