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Old Techies Never Die

 
They just can't get hired after 40 in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley may be booming again, but times are still tough for the 200 out-of-work professionals who crowd into Sunnyvale’s City Hall every Thursday morning.

Most of them hold advanced degrees in engineering and have more than a decade of experience in the technology sector. They fill all of the seats in the City Council chamber and spill out into the aisles.

They are members of Pro Match, a government-financed support group and “interactive career resource center” for educated older workers who have suddenly, and usually involuntarily, found themselves on the job market. Most have been out of work for months.

The job market “is not the same as it was years ago,” said Massimo Sutera, 45, a microprocessor engineer who was laid off last year when his firm, Zoran Corporation, a video chip maker, was acquired by the British firm C.S.R., which promptly scaled back its Sunnyvale operations, discontinuing its investment in digital television systems-on-a-chip. “It’s a mess.”

While Web-based companies like Facebook and Google are scouring the world for new talent to hire, older technology workers often find that their skills are no longer valued.

Part of the problem, analysts said, is that many of the companies shedding jobs are technology manufacturers, while most of the companies that are hiring are Internet-based.

While employment figures published by the state Employment Development Department show that Silicon Valley’s technology sector has more than made up for job losses that occurred early in the recession, the rebound has not helped everyone.

Cisco Systems, a maker of computer networking equipment that is Santa Clara County’s largest private employer, laid off 1,331 workers last year. The semiconductor sector, which used to be the lifeblood of the South Bay’s economy, has lost 4,600 jobs since 2008.

“These are people who know how to run a factory floor, but most of these new companies don’t care about that,” said Connie Buck, a career counselor who helps run Pro Match.

As a result, the South Bay’s unemployment rate, which stood at 8.9 percent in December, remains higher than the national average.

“The pace of change is just breathtaking,” said Russell Hancock, president and chief executive of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a research group backed by businesses and local governments. “We’ve entered a strange new world. There are opportunities, but they are different. You have to be edgy and supercreative.”

“You’re not going to get a job that’s going to be assembly and filing and coding,” Hancock said, “and frankly, that can leave a lot of the older set a little bewildered.”

Hiring managers at the Bay Area’s fastest-growing technology companies were blunt. Seth Williams, a director of staffing at Google, said his firm was looking for candidates who are “passionate” and “truly have a desire to change the world.”

Brendan Browne, who heads hiring at the professional networking site LinkedIn, said his firm wanted every new hire to be entrepreneurial. Browne said that approximately 25 percent of LinkedIn’s new hires came from the company’s recruitment efforts at colleges and universities.

Lori Goler, the head of human resources and recruiting efforts at Facebook, said her company was looking for the “college student who built a company on the side, or an iPhone app over the weekend.” The company also hires more-experienced workers, if “they are results-focused and can deliver again.”

Regardless of age, Goler said, “We ask: Are they going to get to do what they love to do for fun at work?”

Some observers say much of this language is just code for age discrimination. They point to the case of Brian Reid, a 52-year-old manager who was fired by Google in 2004 — nine days before the company announced plans to go public — after his supervisors, including the company’s vice president for engineering operations, allegedly called him a poor “cultural fit,” an “old guy” and a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”

Reid sued Google for age discrimination and said that his unvested stock options would have been worth at least $45 million if he had stayed there.

Google denied the charges and asked that the suit be dismissed, calling such remarks “stray comments.” But the California Supreme Court ruled that the claims, if true, would constitute discrimination. The case was resolved out of court “to the mutual satisfaction of all parties,” said Lori Ochaltree, Reid’s lawyer, who declined to say how much the settlement was.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the case or the amount of the settlement.

In an interview, Norman S. Matloff, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied hiring patterns in the technology sector, said workers over 35 regularly face discrimination by technology companies.

Kris Stadelman, director of NOVA, the local work force investment board, which released a survey of human resource directors at 251 Bay Area technology companies last July, said that in her experience, candidates began to be screened out once they reached 40.

“Especially in social media, cloud computing and mobile apps, if you’re over 40 you’re perceived to be over the hill,” Stadelman said.

Getting hired is especially difficult for unemployed workers who have been laid off after many years at a single company, Stadelman said, because highly sought-after engineers often change firms regularly in an effort to stay on the cutting edge.

The issue of discrimination against laid-off workers has caught the eye of lawmakers. Earlier this month, Assemblyman Michael Allen, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for an employer to “intentionally refuse to offer employment to an individual because of the individual’s status as unemployed.”

Stadelman said that her agency encouraged unemployed workers to emphasize their achievements rather than their experience, not only in interviews but also on their résumés and LinkedIn profiles.

“I had a LinkedIn profile before, but it did not include my branding” to show strengths rather than just job experience, said Euclid Taylor, a veteran account manager who was laid off last September when his company, dpiX, a sensor array maker, shut down its offices in Palo Alto and moved to Colorado Springs.

On his current LinkedIn profile, Taylor, who has gray hair around his temples, plays down his decade of service to dpiX and advertises himself as an “analytical thinker and creative problem solver who effectively collaborates with multifunctional high-performance tea ”

Such retooling has brought success to many of Pro Match’s members, but few of them have been hired by Silicon Valley’s more glamorous tech companies.

According to the organization’s records, 253 of its 583 participants found jobs last year, but just four were hired by Google. Apple, whose headquarters is just three miles away, hired one. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter hired none.

Still, said Goler, the Facebook executive, older workers should not be discouraged from applying. She said her company wants to hire people of all ages and experience levels. “If you’ve built great things before,” she said, “you can build great things again.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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