When Boomers say bye-bye

What IT execs can do before top talent heads off to Del Boca Vista

Could your IT organization handle an exodus of senior people? A lousy economy led many Baby Boomers to put off retiring, but companies shouldn't count on such delays to anchor their IT workforce planning initiatives. Now's the time to plan for the retirement of key talent -- and the legacy systems they built -- before those pros leave the workforce.

Let’s say you’re at a Fortune 50 company, and you’ve been managing their legacy systems and networks that you put in 15 or 20 years ago. What happens to them when you leave?

— Johna Till Johnson, president and founder of Nemertes Research

“Let’s say you’re at a Fortune 50 company, and you’ve been managing their legacy systems and networks that you put in 15 or 20 years ago. What happens to them when you leave?” asks Johna Till Johnson, president and founder of Nemertes Research.

Straightforward knowledge transfer -- having senior IT pros teach junior hires how to run the old systems -- isn’t going to cut it, Johnson warns. “Your bright young things don’t want to learn your creaky old operating system and programming language. And if you do teach them COBOL, you’ll soon discover everybody will cheerfully poach them.”

Instead, the savvy IT shops will make the most of talent -- young and old -- while advancing their enterprise technology strategy.

“Bring in the new people and say, ‘see these mainframes sitting in the basement? In five years they need to be gone. Figure out how we’re going to perform those same functions using state-of-the-art technology. Work with this 50- or 55-year-old guy who can tell you what’s going to break and what you can and can’t do,’” Johnson says.

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That keeps the younger workers challenged with appealing tasks, such as cloud and mobility initiatives. It also keeps the 60-somethings engaged.

With a workforce shortage across STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields, IT managers should be exploring all avenues to ensure a quality, stable workforce, says Joanna Young, associate vice president and CIO at University of New Hampshire (UNH).

Experienced workers are typically those workers in which the organization has invested the most. Organizations have trained and paid them over a period of time to contribute at a high level,” Young says, and “managers should consider extending the value of that investment as part of their overall workforce strategy.”

With proper workforce planning, IT leaders can find the right roles for more experienced pros, such as training or mentoring new staff, or maintaining or helping to retire legacy systems. That’s not to say older workers can’t be taught new skills, as well.

“Training an experienced worker in a new skill can be less expensive and have swifter results than a new worker, because the experienced worker ostensibly has already proven that he or she can successfully learn and apply new skills,” Young says. “And they have the benefit of knowing the organization, so can likely be contributing quickly, using the new skill.”

Knowledge of the organization can be invaluable, particularly when companies are considering making major system changes. “They may know a reason why things are the way they are, why a system was coded a certain way,” says Gezinus Hidding, an associate professor in I.S. at the Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago. “Call it history of the company, history of the IT department.”

Among Nemertes’ clients, Johnson has noticed a tendency for senior IT pros, as they near retirement, to be reluctant to spearhead disruptive initiatives. “They don’t really want to be starting this stuff from scratch themselves. They don’t envy the young guys wrestling with vendors and suppliers,” Johnson says. “They know how to do it, but their role here is to point out what’s going to break, show why assumptions won’t work. They have a very valuable role -- but it’s program management, it’s not doing.”

Baby Boomers

Planning for a changing of the guard and a cutover to state-of-the-art systems is, of course, easier said than done. Some companies are ignoring the aging Baby Boomers problem; others are going the poaching-prone knowledge transfer route; and others are opting to outsource and hand off their systems to a third-party, which can stymie innovation, Johnson warns.

“If you can set up something that’s effective, you’ll be able to handle the transition. But most companies aren’t doing a very good job of it right now,” Johnson says.

Retirement Ready

IT pros like the idea of succession planning, but execution falls short at many companies. In a survey by TEKsystems, 90% of IT leaders said succession planning is important to their organization’s success, yet just 68% said their programs are extremely effective.

Part of the problem is that companies aren’t thinking broadly enough when it comes to identifying which IT roles should have successors. In the TEKsystems survey, just 22% of IT leaders said their organizations conduct succession management planning for key line-level positions in areas such as security, engineering and development.

Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing specialist Modis, says corporate-wide succession planning initiatives will start to pay more attention to IT. “It’s going to trickle more into the world of IT, because we have no choice,” he says. “We’re not creating COBOL programmers any more, but we’re still running systems that rely on COBOL knowledge.”

A strengthening economy will only increase the urgency.

“Because of the recession and market crash, a lot of Baby Boomers extended their careers. Now the market is recovering, they’ve regained some of their losses, and they still want to have time to be retired,” Cullen says.

Flexibility is one advantage companies can use to keep retirement-ready employees from leaving.

Nowadays, professionals have added a phase to their work lives, says Matthew Ripaldi, senior vice president at Modis. Many adults go from working full time, to a phased retirement, to a full retirement.

“There are certain industries that I think are better equipped for that, and technology is one of them,” Ripaldi says. “We work with a lot of contractors and independent consultants, and a lot of the work that we do is on a project basis.”

Working as a contractor or independent consultant gives people the flexibility to take breaks between assignments and to choose to work in different settings. For someone who may have spent 20 years working for one company, that variety can be rewarding, Ripaldi says. “Technology is a great industry for the mature worker,” he says.

Retirement-age workers have also learned invaluable management skills that aren’t tied to any one, particular technology but can apply to any project that requires scheduling, design, procurement, and oversight. Technologies come and go, but solid technology management concepts remain important, Hidding says. If older workers take on a part-time or project-based role, “they can continue to be involved, continue to contribute to the company, and continue to share things they’ve learned along the way,” he says.

Talk to your human resources department and find out what options are available, suggests UNH’s Young. “There are many ways to creatively and successfully extend the investment in an experienced worker who is at or near retirement, ranging from delayed retirement to transitioning to part-time or hourly arrangements,” Young says.

A part-time or project-based arrangement can also benefit the company. “If there’s still some [economic] uncertainty, they may not want to increase their fulltime headcount. Yet the work still needs to get done,” Ripaldi says.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers, outsourcing and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter at @annbednarz http://twitter.com/annbednarz and reach her via email at abednarz@nww.com.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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