Contractors 'terminated' before retirement

Forty years ago, the computer languages BASIC, FORTRAN and Algol were in the ascendancy, packet switching to enable reliable networks was a year old and Moore's law had yet to prove computers doubled in power every year.

Back then in 1966, it was the dawn of professional computer programming, and the image of the bearded, t-shirt wearing hippie with a predilection for staring at green screens was just forming in the collective consciousness.

Where are these pioneers of programming today? Surely they should stalk the IT departments of a million enterprises dazzling with their collected wisdom and experience.

But, corporations have no such luck. Retirement parties are rarer than a system in Algol, and silver-haired staff are conspicuous by their absence.

"In the last fifteen years I've been to just one retirement do, but a multitude of redundancy commiseration drinks for the over fifties," says Kurt Ramman, a contract business analyst with 20 years of professional experience.

He wonders if there is a conspiracy on hiring and retaining ageing contractors.

"Rather than keeping the hairy, rotund old geeks of yesteryear the big companies are shedding them in order to fit the image of sharp dressed consultancies," he says.

It is a theme continued by Ben Straw, a long-time contract architect, "All the 'newbies' go straight to consultancy college, then turn up trying to tell companies what to do, with the benefit of their vast experience, and consultancy programming," he says, sarcastically of newcomers' input.

Simon Pettit, national sales manager at recruitment agent Computer People, thinks he knows where the aged contractors go: "Contractors tend to move around, they just finish a contract and that's it. They've generally enjoyed better rates of pay and been gainfully employed; financial pressures are less. It's amazing how many get out of it to 'build a boat' or something."

He agrees that there aren't many 60-year-old contractors. They tend to drop away in the late forties and early fifties, he says.

But if a majority of contractors get out before retirement age, one still has to ask if it's because they are no longer offered the positions.

Computacenter, a provider of infrastructure services, uses many IT contractors. Michelle Cubberly, the firm's contracted resource group manager, told CUK, "Age does not come into the equation when deciding whether to use a contractor. If they have the correct skills and experience, we'll employ them."

Cubberley's pledge mirrors Pettit's general experience at Computer People, but he concedes some clients attempt to 'match' personnel with their company culture and that can include age selection when teams are made up of bright young sparks. "This is increasingly dangerous," he says, alluding to new legislation outlawing direct and indirect age discrimination.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 comes into force on the 1st October and is one front in the Government's war against the advancing years of the workforce.

Companies may still mould their intake by age, explains Robyn McIlroy at law firm Pinsent Masons, "subject to a justification defence." They must come up with a good argument to show actions were a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim," she says.

The legislation is intended to cover employees, workers under contract and agency workers. And though Muscat V Cable & Wireless has muddied the waters between contracting via a personal services company and employment, McIlroy believes a substitution clause – such as one frequently used to help avoid IR35 – will invalidate the new legislation.

She expects the legislation to have significant impact in the IT industry, which is well-known for its youthfulness.

But Jane Marple, contract test manager, believes the contract market is less ageist than its permie counterpart: "One contractor I worked with actually retired from a well-known telecoms company at the age of 60 but was commanding a reasonable rate as a contractor," she says.

"I have attended many end-of-contract booze ups," she adds. "I guess that's the way contractors go – they don't retire, their contract terminates."

"Termination" seems to be fitting for the bearded digital revolutionaries now reaching sixty. Who'd want to go out with a fizz? Far better, a full process failure!

William Knight

Wednesday 5th Jul 2006
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