The national engineering accreditation agency requires that curricula provide students with some exposure to ethics. My department decided to fulfill this requirement by teaching our own, in-house ethics course, and it’s my turn to teach it. I’m taking the theme of ethical decisions the students may need to address as future engineers, engineering managers, tech entrepreneurs and so on.
As you can see from the course reading list, I’ve chosen age discrimination as one of the topics. This generated an especially lively class discussion, including on a couple of points that I believe are new to the tech age discrimination debate, which I will bring up here.
A few weeks ago, I reported on STEM shortage naysayer Michael Teitelbaum’s visit to Davis, including a visit to my ethics course. Among other things, the students were startled to hear from Michael that Microsoft automatically rejects half of its job applicants by computer algorithm, unseen by human eyes. I believe it’s a safe bet that a major portion of those rejected in this way are older, which as many readers will recall I define as being over age 35.
One of my course’s reading items, from a 2011 Computerworld series, is titled, “Recession Hit Older Tech Workers Harder, Labor Data Shows,” concisely summarizing the data compiled by the Computerworld reporters. One quick point to make on this is that it counters a commonly heard assertion, that “Yes, there is age discrimination in tech, but hey, that’s a problem in any profession.” No, it IS worse in tech, specifically in the computer fields, which I’ve shown before have careers are much shorter than in say, civil engineering.
But the content of another reading item, a 2012 AP article, was especially interesting in our class discussion. Specifically, the students were intrigued by the claims, both in research studies and in perceptions by some, that older engineers are less innovative. This can’t be the case for all older engineers, the students argued, and thus automatic rejection of older applicants is unfair and can amount to lost opportunities for employers.
We then discussed a remarkable point that to my knowledge has never been raised in discussion of the age issue: What if the AP article, instead of quoting and making assertions that older workers are less innovative, had discussed similar assertions for specific racial or cultural groups? There would have been an uproar! Or actually, the AP would simply not run such a piece in the first place.
In other words, why is age fair game but not race? A case could be made that on average, East Asians are less innovative — there is research along these lines, and all East Asian governments have tried to remedy the problem — but no AP article would defend the blanket rejection by employers of East Asian applicants. Not only would this be counter to American racial sensitivity (including my own), but also it would — just as my students pointed out in the case of age discrimination — result in missed opportunities for employers. Whatever the average level of innovation among East Asians is, there are many who are quite talented in that regard.
So, why does the industry get a free pass on age by the press? As I do in various other matters, I attribute this to the slick job the industry PR experts have done in mesmerizing the press into giving credence to the Youth Culture notion in tech.
Which brings me to the other remarkable issue that arose in that class discussion on age. I mentioned that the standard line given by the industry for not hiring older engineers is that the latter don’t have the up-to-date skill sets that the employers need. I cited a New York Times article, for instance, that claimed a shortage of Python programmers (even among the young).
Well, my students were outraged that employers would reject an otherwise high-quality applicant simply because he/she didn’t have experience with Python. A typical student comment was, “Python is such a simple language, something you can pick up really quickly. What’s the big deal?”
The reality, of course, is that employers are willing to hire YOUNG applicants who lack Python background, whereas the older ones will be ignored unless they have actual work experience (not just coursework or self study) in the language. Python etc. are largely just pretexts for rejecting the older workers. But the fact is that my students, all of them Computer Science majors who have learned a number of programming languages, were shocked that employers would screen so stringently on such things (or at least claim to do so). And their shock is even more profound because most CS programs tell their students, in the words of a department that prominently echoes the industry claim of a labor shortage, “The department will prepare you well to adapt to the new technologies, tools and methodologies…”, i.e. that older engineers who stay current won’t have trouble finding work.
The sad truth is that the industry knows that “Python programmer shortage” claims sell. Journalists tend to be easy prey in this regard, since, as one NPR reporter told me only half jokingly “We’re innumerate and proud.” If they are told that prior background in Python is crucial, who are they to question it? And the industry has been so effective in shopping around this celebration of “innovation” — President Obama uses the word often in his speeches — that reporters can give credence to industry claims that age discrimination is justified on innovation grounds.
The press would do well to consider a statement by one of my students: “Do all the engineers in a company need to be innovative? You maybe want a few who might come up with ideas, but you need a whole lot of engineers to implement those ideas.” Well put.
Maybe the press should interview a few CS students for these articles.