Age discrimination: engineering’s dirty secret

Nov. 1, 2002
Since 1995, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has conducted four extensive surveys on its unemployed members

Since 1995, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has conducted four extensive surveys on its unemployed members. One finding that’s consistent across all studies is that it’s more difficult for older engineers to return to the workforce than younger ones. After all other factors have been equalized, each additional year of age extends the layoff period by three weeks. If you’re unemployed and 50, for example, you can expect to be out of work almost four months longer than someone who’s 45 in the same industry with identical experience. There’s only one way to interpret these results: age discrimination.

The toughest pill to swallow is that, realistically, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Discrimination in any form is like a cancer that doesn’t respond to treatment. Our laws are ineffective; they don’t even mask it. My best advice is, if you’re in this boat, just keep plugging away. Those additional weeks or months will eventually pass, and you’ll find yourself once again productively employed, hopefully engaging in something you enjoy.

In the meantime, here are some interesting trends as well as pointers to ponder.

According to the IEEE survey, most layoffs are occurring in the “glamour” industries. Among the respondents, 28% were employed in the communications industry, 23% in the computer industry (hardware or software), and 14% in engineering services or manufacturing. Fewer still (less than 8% in each case) lost jobs in automotive, medical, petrochemicals, and transportation. The most stable industries seem to be aerospace (4%) and defense (5%).

The more stable the industry, however, the longer it typically takes to re-enter the workforce. In the aerospace industry, for instance, the mean length of unemployment is 134 weeks. In the medical industry, it’s 73 weeks, followed by petrochemical at 58 weeks, computers (51 weeks), defense (47 weeks), manufacturing (46 weeks), education (43 weeks), and consulting (39 weeks). By the way, the shortest duration of unemployment was 0 weeks, while the longest was 936 weeks and counting. Yikes.

You’ll be happy to know that, according to the survey, most employers try to soften the blow for terminated engineers. Ninety percent of those laid off received a severance package, 48% had their benefits extended, and 56% received outplacement help.

Not surprisingly, the majority of respondents (76%) said they were told they were being let go because of a downturn in business. This is more than double the number of people who reported the same thing in the previous (1998) survey. The balance of the respondents in 2002 said they were told the layoff was due to a merger or transfer of work.

When asked what job search techniques worked best, 57% of the respondents claimed it was plain old networking. Internet job listings came in second at 34%, followed by newspaper ads (29%); headhunters (28%); and randomly sending out resumes (25%). Job fairs and career consultants ranked lowest.

Few people said finding a job was easy. Twothirds (66%), in fact, said the process was very difficult. Four percent said they found a great job, 7% an adequate job.

On the upside, the mean duration of unemployment is shorter now than in any other survey year. In 1998, the mean duration was 103 weeks; in 1995, it was 84 weeks; in 1996, 92 weeks; and in 2002, it’s 49 weeks.

When asked what they saw as primary barriers to their re-employment, most respondents (65%) said national economic conditions. Age was second (64%) followed by area of technical competence (41%), geographic preference (38%), ethnicity (13%), education (11%), gender (10%), and disability (3%).

As a follow-up to this question, respondents were asked what they thought IEEE should be doing to help. Twenty-eight percent said that the organization should provide networking opportunities, augment its job banks, and provide more specialized job information. The same number also urged the IEEE to do something to restrict the number of foreign engineers streaming into the U.S. Most wanted the organization to advise Congress to reduce H-1B visas; some suggested restricting the field through licensing and certification processes.

Perhaps the most alarming trend visible in the survey results is that although engineers are generally a dedicated bunch, adversity seems to be taking a toll. When asked whether they wanted to remain in their primary area of technical expertise, 78% responded that they did. However, over one-third are considering leaving engineering altogether. And more than half (65%) would not recommend it as a career to their son or daughter.

Finally, while 24% of the respondents anticipated a pay cut re-entering the workforce, 1% expected a raise. Something tells me that’s the guy who’s been holding out for 936 weeks.

Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

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