With more than 600 cases currently going through employer tribunals, it seems many employers still continue to select on the basis of age. And the IT department and wider industry are especially vulnerable to stereotyping around age, according to employees and recruiters.
"I know one financial services company that won’t place candidates over the age of 26," said Martin Allport, managing director of IT recruitment consultancy D1. "We recently nominated a 45 year-old man to this company. He is a very good technician and would have brought the younger guys on because he had good mentoring skills. But the 35 year-old IT director turned him down on the basis he 'didn’t fit'.”
Allport said this kind of stereotyping also permeates many IT departments. "But having some grey hair might otherwise be perceived as a plus for project management, because it shows you’ve been round the block a few times and have experience."
A senior associate with Berwin Leighton Paisner, which commissioned the survey, confirms that a particular ageist aura cloaks the IT world because of the furious pace of technology churn.
"One of the cases I’ve dealt with concerns the perception that there is inherent ageism in the IT industry," said Jackie Thomas.
In that case, the plaintiff contended that a requirement for recent experience in a job vacancy hit older candidates harder because of their difficulties in landing IT jobs in the first place, prior to the 2006 legislation.
"I reject those stereotypes absolutely,” says Ben Booth, global technology director of market research giant Ipsos. “It doesn’t make a great deal of recruitment sense because the demographic time bomb is already ticking away. People have to get real about the recruitment pool available and this legislation is prodding us in the right direction, not to reject older candidates.”
Booth’s concerns are pointed up by the latest official figures from the National Audit Office, published in August. Computer science and maths degrees have the highest drop-out rate among UK universities with one in 10 undergraduates not continuing into a second year of study.
These subjects have also suffered the biggest decline in first-year student intakes, dropping by a quarter since 2002. And yet the IT industry continues to grow between five and eight times faster than other sectors and needs 150,000 new entrants every year.
Although the case for considering candidates on merit and not age has never been clearer in the IT industry, Booth nonetheless admits the area is a delicate one that IT recruiters are treading carefully around.
"There are going to be older people, more set in their ways who don’t want to learn new skills, just as there are young people who aren’t going to be reliable and stick around." However the trick is not to assume this is the case.
Indeed it is this unique aspect of the legislation – it affects potentially every single worker - that makes it such a perplexing area for employers. According to Thomas, the mature age group – predominantly over-50s - form the majority of claimants. But abuse of the legislation is widespread: the Berwin Leighton Paisner survey reveals that out of more than 50 businesses across a range of sectors, more than one in 10 has already received a claim.
True, there are certain best practices that can be adopted to avoid falling foul of the law, says Jeff Brookes, chairman of the communications and IT sector for Recruitment Employers Confederation. It is considered, by legal sources to be dodgy to submit CVs with candidates’ date of birth, for example. “If a client says I want someone young and dynamic, we would only follow instructions on the dynamic part."
Recruiters have to change their mindset completely and the work culture has to adapt. Similarly other law firms report that recruiters struggle with the notion of ’justification’ as this could change according to individual company circumstances.
Ultimately, rather than concentrating on methods to stay on the right side of the law, IT employers are better advised to approach a broader spectrum of candidates for vacancies - as then they can’t go far wrong.
The industry has to be prepared to go out and get the older generation, says Brookes. "The mid 50s generation is still drifting away from IT. But the ones I know are quite capable of using their planet–sized brain to program in new languages, as well as the old.”