Quinn: Time to challenge Silicon Valley's youth premium

By Michelle Quinn, San Jose Mercury News

Every time I write about one of Silicon Valley's star companies divulging its workforce demographics, I hear from scores of readers asking when tech companies will start talking about age bias.

How about now?

Ageism in tech is nothing new. Silicon Valley's mythical hero has long been a young man who starts a company with friends.

But a few key things have changed over the past 18 months that make the discussion of age bias timely.

Valley firms have taken up the issue of workforce diversity in an unprecedented way the last two years, revealing the makeup of their employees when it comes to gender, race and ethnicity. Tech CEOs at Intel and elsewhere have publicly set targets and timelines for how their firms' rank and file, as well as leadership, will look in the near future. Companies have engaged in "unconscious bias" workshops to tackle how stereotypes perniciously play out in discussions about hiring, promotion and pay.

Yet, in this ferment about diversity, there hasn't been much said about age.

It is still tech's third rail as job ads aim to attract "millennials" and "digital natives" but not "mature leaders" or "experienced managers."

But in this tight labor market and with introspection suddenly in vogue, companies can't help but veer into the topic of age bias.

Companies, of course, benefit by having employees with a wide age range. Older workers often bring the so-called "soft skills," such as how to work well with a wide range of people, how to problem solve and how to build a team. They also tend to know themselves well and what it takes to get a project done, according to job counselors.

The negative stereotype of the older worker is a tired, unmotivated, middle-aged worker who is lagging in tech skills and grumpy toward tattooed and pierced millennials -- not necessarily a fair assessment, but typical of the stereotypes society perpetuates.

As I tell readers who complain to me, there isn't much data to help accurately analyze age in Silicon Valley. But here are a few numbers:

Young firms have young employees, according to a 2013 paper by the Federal Reserve. In firms under 5 years old, about 70 percent of workers are under 45, with 27 percent of workers between 25 and 34 years old. In contrast, in established companies at least 20 years old, about half of the workers are over 45. Fewer than 18 percent are under 34.

According to new data from PayScale, an online salary, benefits and compensation information company, the median age of a tech worker in the San Jose region is 32. (The median age in Santa Clara County is 36.4.)

PayScale also confirmed the perception that tech campuses are crawling with young people: The median age of an Apple worker is 31.

The workforce at Google, which I feared would forever be stuck at a median age of 29 even as its employee count soared, has ticked up to 30. At Facebook, it is 28 and at LinkedIn, it is 29, according to a 2014 study by PayScale.

But nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of people working in tech is much older, in fields such as electronic manufacturing (45.9), computer system design (40.9), software publishing (41.3), Internet publishing and Web search portals (35.9).

A high-tech recruiter told me that "startups are inherently comprised of young folks, and they want people that are the same." People in their early 40s probably don't experience bias, he said, but once they approach 50, they often become out of sync with the startup work culture.

But there is an upside in the tightening labor market, said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, another salary, review and job site. "As more tech companies are maturing from small startup to large, established organizations, their workforces are beginning to look more like traditional companies," he said. "And that is creating a lot more opportunities for older workers that didn't used to exist."

Joelle Emerson of Paradigm, a strategy firm that helps companies build more diverse and inclusive organizations, told me that the rank and file may be ready to talk about age bias but they are looking for signals from the top. "Efforts to mitigate age bias are unlikely to be effective, for example, if you have a CEO who routinely comments on the value of having a 'young workforce.' No one would take efforts to address ageism seriously in such a company," she said.

Companies are not required by law to collect information on age, but data could help firms answer some of the same questions they have asked themselves when it comes to gender, race and ethnicity: Are more people above a certain age applying to companies than are being hired? Are older workers being promoted more slowly, or leaving companies at higher rates?

And is it really true that the young have an edge on meeting the new skills that technology seems to drive every five years or so?

"It's not something people should fault the companies for," said Jon Bischke, chief executive of Entelo, a company that provides a platform for recruiters to find talent. "They are looking for the right skill sets."

Few companies seem to track these trends, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Hewlett-Packard breaks down its global workforce by age group (18.6 percent of workers were 51 or older in 2014). Nvidia shows how each age group does when it comes to turnover and new hires. (About 7 percent of new hires at Nvidia in 2014 were 51 or older).

The tech industry's lack of self-awareness of this issue places all the onus on the job candidate who has to work hard to combat his or her own stereotype that Silicon Valley doesn't value — or hire — people over 40.

"People come to us all the time, beaten down, afraid, intimidated," said Robert Withers, a career counselor at Nova Workforce Development, a federally funded career counseling organization in Silicon Valley. "We know there is age discrimination, and we know it's possible to counter it in places you want to work."

Recently, a client of his, a woman over 50, was hired by Google. Congratulations.

But we can't declare success until her age is something neither she nor her new employer think about.

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Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.