March 2014 Meeting Discussion: Ageism and Today’s Technical Communicator

Presented by Andrew Davis, and reviewed by Andrew Garris

This month’s Society of Technical Communications (STC)–San Francisco Chapter meeting provided good information as well as a pleasant and cozy atmosphere. Light refreshments were served, and Andrew Davis executed a great presentation detailing aspects of ageism, and how ageism impacts content development projects.

Andrew Davis has been recruiting technical writers (content developers) for more than twenty years. He started in 1986 with the help of friend and mentor Jim Dexter.

Andrew began his presentation by explaining the definition of ageism, which is the predisposed opinion of an individual based solely on his or her age (age discrimination). He discussed potential assumptions that employers are likely have against older potential employee candidates. He also offered some advice to older candidates to counter the age discrimination. In addition to ageism, another existing problem in the tech industry is that the hiring manager’s expectations will greatly differ from pragmatic results that recruited employees can produce. The impact of these two issues hurts an older candidate based on the hiring manager’s perception or misinterpretation of the position of a content developer.

Hiring managers or hiring teams will often seek an employee that is familiar with the company’s content as well as having the ability to write well. We all know that this expectation is not realistic, so recruiters are left with the task of “bridging” writing personalities (those that are not familiar with technical content), with engineering personalities (those that develop hardware, software, etc.).

“Engineers like to be engineers. . .a bridge is possible. . . writers want to be writers, and sometimes they (writers) will oppose technology in pursuit of that. . .” -Andrew Davis

“Companies desire someone that understands the engineering side. . . you need to know about their technology to get your foot in the door” -Andrew Davis

There are some key things to consider when seeking job opportunities as a technical writer, content developer or technical communicator of some sort. Location, age, and experience are the three major factors to look at when determining your job ventures. Fortunately for us in Northern California, technical writers make a higher than average salary compared to the rest of the country. There is a negative side to this as well; overhead and costs of a veteran technical writer are more expensive than a younger candidate. Companies will offset this by hiring younger employees that earn less money than a seasoned technical writer. Some companies actually recruit employee candidates directly on college campuses, often with an engineering background. The company can then utilize the student as a writer or engineer.

Until recently, younger candidates were not as big of a threat to veteran technical writers. The dot com failure flooded the market with seasoned local talent, causing a lot of job opportunities for experienced technical writers. Good technical writers were hard to find for a while, causing the existing pool of tech writers to have better compensation for their work.

About ten years later, the younger generation closed the gap between them and the experienced, veteran technical writers already in the field. Companies also looked to expand in areas such as marketing communications, content strategy, and other avenues as an alternative to technical writing in an effort to cut costs. The combination of the two trends made for a unique new marketplace for job opportunities in the field.

In the restructured and recovering tech industry, engineers ultimately (still) control the fate of a technical writer’s job. He or she has control of the budget, so the decisions (no matter how skewed and unrealistic they may be) are in the hands of an engineer. Also, the new software industry has become open-source, so it is important to understand how that affects job opportunities. Many out-of-work technical content developers do not possess knowledge of the new programming platforms; this just closes the gap even more between younger and older candidates.

Due to a talented younger generation’s skill set improving, hiring teams will seek candidates that have similar values, attributes, and unfortunately age group as well. A 30-year old hiring manager will often hire a 25-year old employee over a 45-year old employee assuming that the younger candidate will be able to work long hours, work weekends, go on company ski trips, go out to the bars after work, and attend other work ‘bonding’ activities. Currently, hiring teams prefer a spry, younger candidate versus a seasoned writer.

It is not uncommon for a hiring manager to have no clue what a technical writer does, or what he or she needs a technical writer for, so how is he or she supposed to find a good technical writer? Recruiters help out in this instance, helping link potential candidates for job openings with the technical companies. Older candidates must make themselves stand out and be persistent when seeking a job opportunity, though, due to ageism.

Another common reason that companies are averse to hiring an older candidate is health insurance. An older person is perceived to be more likely to get sick, and therefore the employee would be less productive for the company’s bottom-line. Older candidates also can be perceived by hiring teams as more rigid and less likely to abide by all of the companies desired techniques or methods. Companies are looking for a candidate that is “more pliable and more cooperative.” The employer prefers someone who will work on-site, someone who will learn and adapt to company policies and strategies, and someone who will “go with the flow,” as Andrew Davis likes to put it.

Before a candidate can even get started with a company, the interview process must take place, and you have to be extraordinary to get a job opportunity. Obviously, it is quite difficult for someone to interview for a company, have it go well, but not have a job offer at the end of the process. Often an older candidate will have a good resume and think that an interview went really well, but later will hear from the employer generic excuses such as “you have too much experience” or “you are a flight risk” or “you are over-qualified.”

The employer uses these aforementioned trite justifications instead of admitting a “politically incorrect” reality; the employer prefers a younger (and cheaper) employee that will work as a peer within the framework of the company team. Obviously the employer cannot use ageism as a legal reason for not hiring an older candidate, so the above-mentioned clichés are common things that employers/ interviewers will say when deciding not to hire an older candidate.

To combat all of the negative predisposed attitudes that many hiring teams may have, an older candidate must act proactively and assertively when a job opportunity arises. The older candidate must stress his or her efficiency, quality, focus and self-awareness. Nothing replaces experience, so experience and wisdom are definitely strong points that an older candidate must utilize as these are clear advantages over younger candidates. Older candidate can also point out the fact that he or she “has been there before,” so his or her work will be more consistent in the face of adversity than the younger generation. Also, having experience in the field gives the older candidate a “sixth sense” for what users need and a good idea of what works and what doesn’t based on his or her prior professional experiences.

Probably one of the most valuable attributes that older candidates possess over younger candidates is self-awareness. Self-awareness is built through experiences and observation of your surroundings, so you become increasing self-aware as you age. Older candidates understand their own strengths and own weaknesses, and are not afraid to seek help when they know that they are out of their element.

Older candidates must stress these attributes during an interview process in order to distinguish themselves “ahead of or above the crowd.” Andrew Davis describes the best way to handle the process, “Be the one that commands the interview. . . On the phone interview explain your skills and assets. . .Offer real-world references and send samples to impress them [employer/interviewer].” Andrew also said it best in this quote, “Ask what the problem [that the company has] is… Tell them ‘this is what I can do for you and I am the right person for the job’.” . . You need to seize the opportunity and make the interviewer think to him or herself, “If I do not hire this person I am making a mistake.”

Andrew Davis concluded his presentation by letting some members attending the meeting to share personal success or not so successful stories. One member described a very unfortunate story, as he was laid off on his 65th birthday. Companies are ruthless nowadays. Even though there were some bad moments, there were some positive success stories as well. A woman mentioned that she was able to find work during her 50’s, and mentioned that two friends that also did technical content development found work when they were in their 60’s. Another member said that the STC has been very helpful when it comes to finding employment and possible opportunities. The National STC website helped a member obtain a contract position at a start-up and the engineer project manager of the start-up said, “The best place to find a technical writer is the STC [Society for Technical Communications].”

Andrew shared a few more ideas and answered a few more questions before the meeting ended. When asked about social media “Start with Linked-In. It’s where all the hiring managers start. They try to do it without my help, thinking that we are all working from the same pool. . . In the beginning it [social media as recruiting tool] is cheaper than a recruiter, but costly mistakes in the near future are more likely to happen.” Andrew also says that you are wasting your time if you are trying to use Facebook or Twitter to look for job opportunities. Linked-In is the only social media platform that is currently ‘legitimate’ from the employers’ perspective.

Andrew wrapped up his presentation with his contact information, which is detailed below for reference. Also, one of my personal favorite quotes of the night was after a member had one of the last questions of the night. She asked Andrew, “Why do companies come to you looking for help to find technical writers/ technical content developers.” Andrew replied, “They [the companies in need of help] come to me when their backs are against the wall and don’t know what else to do. . .”

Contact Andrew at www.linkedin.com/in/synergistech.

 

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