Older job-seekers fall behind as Peninsula tech market heats up 

click to enlarge Instructors from vocational schools and community colleges understand that older students will have a hard time competing for tech jobs with the latest class from Stanford.
  • Instructors from vocational schools and community colleges understand that older students will have a hard time competing for tech jobs with the latest class from Stanford.

Traditionally, Menlo Park’s JobTrain vocational school served the various populations left behind during the boom years — meaning community college dropouts, people with rap sheets or folks who just didn’t have the connections to talk their way into the tech sector.

But the school’s student body has changed, JobTrain Vocational Counselor and Assessment Coordinator John MacGowan said. Now he’s seeing an influx of older professionals who may even possess graduate degrees or impressive resumes, but who somehow backslid.

He ticks off a list of unusual characteristics:

“People with real estate degrees, people who used to make $40 to $60 an hour — some were hugely well-paid executives before.”

One of his students is 83 years old and just trying to break into the computer industry.

“He’s sharp,” MacGowan said, hesitating politely. “But not that marketable, if you know what I mean.”

MacGowan has a term for this swath of the population: Recession people. They’re the smart, high-performing, mostly older workers who somehow slipped through the cracks. Although San Mateo County’s unemployment rate fell to a tolerable 5.1 percent in April, MacGowan says this group of students shows no sign of disappearing. In fact, these days, the stakes for them are much higher.

“It’s crowded, it’s tougher,” MacGowan said. “It’s not enough to know how to upgrade memory on a computer any more because a 12-year old can do that.”

Older professionals have a tougher time in the job market for all the obvious reasons — their salary demands are higher and they don’t have the glamour of tech wunderkind. But the Peninsula’s rapidly growing tech economy has created its own set of obstacles. Now, job-seekers have to be much more nimble, says Cañada College workforce development director Kay O’Neill. They have to stay abreast of the hot programming language du jour.

“It’s a very disruptive economy,” O’Neill explained. “You think you’re the Flip camera guy and then — boom — smartphones come along and totally obviate the need for Flip cams. You’re used to C++ or Java, but now everyone wants Ruby on Rails.”
The quick shift in product cycles creates a lot of workforce churn, O’Neill said. That might explain why so many of the top tech employers are constantly casting their net overseas, and whining about knowledge gaps in the American workforce. Anyone who can’t keep up gets left behind.

O’Neill said that the county’s community colleges are doing everything they can to be a “supply store” for employers, but MacGowan often worries that his students will have a hard time competing with the latest crop of Stanford grads. In the late 1990s, he said JobTrain provided a curriculum specifically geared toward jobs at Cisco, Oracle and Sun Microsystems, which were the region’s biggest employers at the time. But then students would finish their coursework and not wind up with job offers.

In recent years, program instructors have set their sights a little lower by training people to be mid-level help-desk workers or service technicians at Best Buy. That’s still a challenge, MacGowan said.

“You still have to prove you’re [a better option] than a robot,” MacGowan said. “Or outsourcing.”

And in the meantime, many of his students are on their second round of unemployment. They’re running out of time to sit around and take classes.


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