Beyond young, white males - how to swim in a bigger tech talent pool

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett June 19, 2017
In the second part of our series on ageism in tech, Cath Everett explores the benefits of taking on older workers and how public and private sector employers can ensure they get the best candidate for the job.

While the tech industry in the industrialised nations of the West may consist today predominantly of young, white males, a confluence of factors are coming together that mean this established balance has to shift if the sector is to live up to its full potential.

Firstly is the quickening global skills crisis, which means that employers will need to look beyond traditional talent pools if they are to find the expertise they require to thrive and grow. But another consideration is that the general population is also ageing, which means that the workforce is ageing with it.

In the UK, for instance, a third of all adults will be over 50 by 2020, but by only 2030, that figure will have jumped to half of the total population, according to Business in the Community, a charity that promotes responsible business. To make matters worse, while 14.5 million more jobs will have been created by 2022, only seven million younger people will have entered the workforce, leaving a worrying shortfall of 7.5 million.

But there are also other reasons why having a more balanced team makes sense, particularly in innovation terms. Alex Caccia, co-founder and chief executive of start-up Animal Dynamics, explains:

Diversity tends to create an atmosphere in which people feel more relaxed. Problem-solving is often a messy process and new ideas may stem from something that seems like a foolish suggestion but isn’t, and so people need to know they’re not going to be shot down. If you’ve got a team of young, white males, the chances are that they’ll just compete with each other like mad. But having an age- and gender-diverse team neutralises that and makes for a much more pleasant working environment based on trust so ideas, balanced against intellectual rigour, can flourish.

Animal Dynamics is a spin-out from Oxford University that is developing products inspired by nature. These products include Skeeter, a tiny flapping-winged drone based on dragonfly motion, whose development is being funded by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in order to understand how to obtain maximum performance out of a minute energy source. The company employs 12 engineers, a quarter of whom are 65 plus and work part-time as consultants.

Another benefit of taking on older workers, meanwhile, is their experience, Caccia believes:

One of the positive things about people who are at the end of their careers or post-retirement is that their personal career agenda is much more relaxed. They’re interested in the subject and in solving design and engineering problems, but it’s also about experience and exposure to analogous problem sets. One guy who works for us and is about to turn 70 is an expert in designing electric motors. At one point, we were wrestling with a design issue and he remembered a paper he’d read from the 1950s so we developed a variant of that. There’s no way that someone in their 20s would have that background, but it’s invaluable.

Four key characteristics

Martin Ewings, director of regional sales and specialist markets at recruitment consultancy Experis, agrees. In particular so-called “boomerang” workers who have already retired and come back into the workforce are generally “less driven by ambition or money”, he says, and more by the “impact and change they can make”. They also provide a valuable means of upskilling and mentoring the existing workforce and tend to be strong on “loyalty and commitment”.

But Ewings also shoots down the assumption that older workers, who are generally defined as 55 plus, cannot learn new skills. Instead he believes they are too often pigeonholed based on past work experience when, in reality, an equally important consideration is their inherent personality traits. As he points out:

There are basically four major unteachable capabilities, which are narrow but transferrable: drive, adaptability, resilience and brightness, that is a curiosity and willingness to learn new things – and they’re critical for career longevity and to progress up the career ladder. These capabilities are not age-specific and they’re far harder to recruit for than experience, but we are starting to see a movement where organisations are becoming more open to the idea.

One of those organisations is actually Animal Dynamics. While Caccia does not go out of his way to hire older employees at the expense of younger ones, he does use his network of contacts to locate people with pertinent skills. He explains:

The fact that some people are older is neither here nor there. We’re not tracking people down specifically because they are older – we’re tracking down their expertise - and we’ve benefited a lot from that.

Gareth Jones, chief innovation officer at HR and business management consultancy The Chemistry Group, meanwhile, points to research published by Harvard University in 2011, which indicates that past experience is a poor predictor of an individual’s performance within an organisation. Instead it appears that issues such as personality, values and motivation are actually more important. He says:

There’s no shortage of talent – employers are just taking too narrow a view of what it is. So it’s about opening your mind and looking at the things that matter rather than those that don’t such as age or race. The problem is that hiring managers are not looking at these issues. They’re still using the same old criteria they did 30 years ago.

Widening the talent pool

While Jones acknowledges that taking a new approach and assessing what “great looks like for a given role” without focusing purely on skills is “quite labour-intensive”, he believes the effort is worth it. Therefore, as a starting point, his advice is to create a profile of particular roles by exploring the personality, motivation and behaviour of high performers and using those criteria, alongside necessary skills, when hiring.

One organisation that is looking at potential rather than skills only, meanwhile, is ADP. In the spring, the HR software and services provider introduced a range of different recruitment programmes for new candidates, which included one aimed at the over 40s, another at former military personnel and a third at people who wanted to return to work after a career break. HR director Annabel Jones explains the rationale:

We’re widening our potential talent pool so we’re no longer focusing on a small pool that can do the job from day one. The idea is about hiring people with transferrable skills who we can train up. So even if they’ve got a customer service background we could teach them about payroll, for instance, and get them up to speed. This kind of approach also has the advantage of creating diversity as people bring in their different life experiences, which encourages innovation, new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Another possible approach, says Patrick Voss, managing director at Jeito, a consultancy specialising in organisational culture and employee engagement, is to look across your existing talent pools and see how individuals could be up- or cross-skilled based on the expertise required within the organisation rather than simply writing them off based on stereotypes.

Although he recognises that, while some employers are introducing initiatives to tackle age-related challenges, issues such as gender, race and sexuality are generally tackled as more of a priority as they are not only higher profile but also higher up the political agenda.

Due to this lack of focus, Voss recommends including age as another strand within wider inclusion programmes and/or activities aimed at supporting the currently widespread situation of four generations in the workplace. Considerations here include building awareness on matters such as how to manage workers who are older than you or how to be managed by someone younger.

Ultimately, however, believes Experis’ Ewings, individual programmes are unlikely to prove enough. He explains:

I don’t think it’s about initiative-led solutions. There needs to be a cultural shift in how we view the workforce. But that shift isn’t happening at the pace required so it’s going to become a big problem – and sooner than you might think.

My take

Developed societies are fundamentally ageist societies that have worshipped at the altar of youth for a long time – a situation that is reflected perhaps in its most marked form in the tech industry. But unless attitudes start to shift and action is taken – and quickly – the sector is going to find itself in the ridiculous position of throwing talented people on the scrap heap in their 40s and 50s, while bemoaning a global skills crisis at least partially of its own making.