Over the Hill at Forty in Austin's New Economy
By Kevin Fullerton, Fri., March 2, 2001
Rebecca Rucker has spent the last six years in Austin, but she's decided she'd rather continue her career beneath the smoggy skies of her native Houston than suffer any more of Austin's "quality of life." She was just past the age of 40 when she moved here in 1995 to be near her parents. After a handful of career changes, Rucker had become so adept at surfing the professional job market that she decided to get licensed as a career counselor and open her own firm. She soon noticed, however, that she could make more money by taking on clients back in Houston, where she commands triple the hourly rate that she gets here. Now, as she prepares to return, she says her associates in Houston are giving her a little of the I-told-you-so. "They say, 'What did you expect? It's Austin,'" says Rucker.
Rucker's move upmarket isn't that unusual. Compared with Dallas or Houston, Austin has always been a small town, with salaries to match. Ambitious professionals have often had to choose between the more bucolic lifestyle here and the higher pay available elsewhere. But Rucker says fewer older professionals seem to find Austin's terms agreeable these days. More and more, the clients she sees -- mostly high-skilled workers in their 40s and 50s, between jobs or looking for better ones -- are getting fed up with the city's job market.
Rucker is often hired by "trailing spouses" who are relocating with a husband or wife who has landed a job here. Last year, Rucker says, half the trailing spouses she worked with stayed in Austin only a few months before both they and their partners picked up and left. "I have been surprised to hear their comments," says Rucker. "They have told me that they do not appreciate coming into a city with such high rents, low salaries, low customer service, and unfriendly people. I don't think most Austinites see themselves that way."
No, not hardly. This is a city that's proud of its eccentric mannerisms and underutilized Ph.D.s, where people display bumper stickers that read "Life's Too Short to Live in Houston." And if one overlooks the thousands of recent job layoffs, it's also a place where cultivation of the New, tech-driven Economy has rendered perpetually rosy economic news, at least as far back as most 25-year-olds can remember. Average wage levels have even risen above the national average, the Chamber of Commerce recently reported. There's a mix of upscale bars and restaurants downtown. What's to be ashamed of?
Well, for one thing, says Rucker, her experience with clients outside Austin has made her aware of how meager the job opportunities for older professionals are here. Austin's business culture is neither very diverse, nor very mature, Rucker says. If you're more concerned with putting your kids through college than sampling microbrews at happy hour, Austin is a city with sorely limited options. Rucker is leaving, but for the sake of those who call this town home, she'd like to see youth-fixated Austin change its attitude.
The new jobs that pay well in Austin are being created in youth-dominated fields such as software development and sales, dot-com ventures, multimedia, and Web design. But headlines cheering the local tech industry don't mention what any career consultant knows -- that good salaries are still hard to come by outside the tech sector. The economic boom never placed a lot of upward pressure on middle management salaries, but it left middle management workers up to their ears in housing costs. Labor forecasts, in fact, show that the majority of jobs opening up to support the tech industry in Austin offer salaries well below the $45,000 that midlevel professionals typically pull down. For older professionals lacking a tech background, the difficult choice often comes down to accepting a salary that's fallen behind the cost of living, or trying to fit in at a company where their co-workers are not much older than their children. And some older employees say that Austin's youthful work culture is not particularly appealing to them, nor very welcoming.
Old Workers in the New Economy
Thad Garvin, a representative with one of this city's oldest recruitment firms, says employees who try to move from other fields into high tech employment typically don't find the going very easy. "If people have a choice, they avoid high tech, especially software, if they're a little bit older, because they just feel like they're not going to fit in, and some of them get so discouraged that they do leave Austin," says Garvin. According to Rucker, career counselors hear all the time from job applicants in their 40s and 50s who either couldn't get in the door at high tech companies or were forced out soon after they did.
Of course, almost no one talks openly about age discrimination in Austin, and given the liability implications that surround the issue, that's not surprising. Nor is it easy to discern whether ageism is real, or merely perceived within the inevitable generational clashes in the workplace. But for Rucker, the numbers say a lot. "If people are under 35, they can typically get a job in 30-60 days," she says, "but if they're older, I may work with them for three to four months, even six to nine months ..."
For a breadwinner without a tech background who is unfortunate enough to be out of a job or in need of a better-paying one, Austin's is a tough job market. And it's about to become downright brutal. Garvin says he has up to 20 qualified applicants for every position he fills, and the competition is getting fiercer as the tech layoffs -- numbering about 11,000 since October by Garvin's count -- continue to mount.
People stranded in unemployment limbo usually don't want to talk to a reporter about the experience. Out of nearly 20 such sources approached for this story, only a few agreed to participate, most off the record. Being jobless is a wound most would rather not advertise, feeling that publicity would only stigmatize them further. "Sam" agreed to tell his story anonymously. A research physicist with 20 years' experience, he directed a multimillion-dollar project spanning several countries before moving to Austin last year to be closer to his family. He's a confident man who carries himself as if he's fully worth the six-figure salary he used to command. But after job hunting for several months in Austin, he's been unable to find a position that pays anywhere near that. In his early 50s, Sam hardly feels like an old-timer, and he's eager to work with a company developing cutting-edge products. But breaking into the closed ranks of high tech firms at his age, he says, has been trying. "If I were one to five years out of [the University of Texas] in any of their engineering programs, I probably could find a job in a week," Sam says. "When I hear they can't fill positions, I look around and see a bunch of guys who could do them, but they're not 25 years old."
Life in Unemployment Limbo
Sam didn't come to Austin without a job: He worked a short stint as a contract employee for a research and development firm that has since laid off several top administrators. That was seven months ago, and Sam says none of the people he worked with -- executive vice-presidents in their 40s and 50s -- have found permanent positions yet. Sam is careful to say that age discrimination in Austin is not necessarily deliberate. He believes part of the problem lies in unprofessional and unsophisticated recruiting techniques -- a complaint heard frequently among career consultants. Key words on resumes are given more weight than an applicant's ability to lead and coordinate, he says. There's a reluctance to recommend someone who "hasn't been writing Java code from the day they were born," says Sam, for fear that it will cost more to train them. "The attitude is that if you're not born in the industry, you can't work in the industry," he says.
Unfortunately, competition for the jobs Sam wants has gotten more intense with recent layoffs at Motorola, Dell, and a slew of start-up ventures. Like Sam, some of those former Motorola employees are veterans of an older economy where the rules for career advancement were much different. "Bob," for example, had nearly 20 years' experience as an engineer for Motorola when he became one of about 450 employees the company let go last month. Last week, hanging out in the South Austin office wing the company has converted into a job-hunting assistance center, Bob was keeping his chin up, but apprehensive about re-entering a job market where youth is at a premium. It used to be that experience and stability were valued over youth, he says, and workers who skipped frequently from job to job would soon find themselves without one. Now, he says, young employees do the same jobs as their older co-workers, and employers reward those who are willing to jump from one position to the next. Even at venerable companies like Motorola, Bob says, leadership rotations are frequent and constant, which tends to make veteran employers uncomfortable. "We want things to settle down so we can focus on what we're doing," says Bob. Instead, he says, many older employees are given incentives to leave. "You could say that's discrimination, which it is, but trying to prove that's another thing."
Susan Hendrix, a technical recruiter brought in by Motorola to help move its laid-off employees into new jobs, says the culture of "change management" is the reality at tech companies nowadays, and workers who need long-term stability probably won't find it. "Now that margins are low, [these companies] need people to be able to turn on a dime," says Hendrix. "I didn't look at whether people were old or young, I looked at whether they had the capability to do that." If there's an age bias, it's because companies don't want to see 15 years of experience in one job listed on a resume. They'd rather hire someone who's prepared to see their job vanish in five years, Hendrix says.
Hendrix says that since the Motorola layoff was announced, the company's competitors have advertised nearly 2,000 job openings, most here in Austin. Former employees are already posting announcements of their new jobs on the walls of the job search center. For Bob, a seasoned worker in Austin's relatively mature research and development sector, chances are good that he'll be recruited.
But in the last few years, more and more older professionals in Austin find themselves off recruiters' radar screens, and are being forced to learn new ways to get noticed.
As one of the services offered by her firm, Career Works, Rucker has organized a career resource club, tapping into what she calls a "popular trend" of networking events for people who've learned that job hunting is a full-time job. For two hours every week, job seekers in Rucker's club get together to share job information and hear presentations on how to sell yourself with 30-second commercials, strategies for cold-calling, and researching potential employers. These are the people -- some out of a job, some just hoping for something better -- for whom simply posting resumes on Hire.com or PerfectAgent.com doesn't start the phones ringing. Nor are jobs that will support their families listed regularly in the Sunday classifieds. Some are trying to network themselves into the high tech realm, while others are just staying "fresh" on opportunities.
Joe O'Rourke, a 28-year-old former Congressional aide, has been using Rucker's club as a networking tool for several months. He's looking for a job in government that would pay acceptably -- about $45,000, he says. Meanwhile, a friend of his experienced in software sales looked for about three weeks before getting an offer at $80,000. "It tests your patience, tests who you are," says O'Rourke.
Even though headlines have eulogized the death of the dot-com industry, recruiters say new ventures continue to thrive and generate new jobs in Austin. But is that good news for professionals without backgrounds in the tech sector? Recruiters say yes, that start-ups that have weathered the downturn have learned to value experience and are looking for older, more adaptable workers. High tech companies don't discriminate against older employees, says recruiter Pam Bratton of Career Consultants Staffing Service, but some people don't want to change their habits and outlook. "We had more experienced professionals who would look at these start-ups up and say, 'That's not where I want to be,' than we had companies who looked at these candidates and said, 'That's not who we want,'" says Bratton.
Life After Death of the Dot-Com
Consultant Nancy Blue says older employees who want tech-sector jobs may have to let go of how much they've learned in the past and focus on what they can contribute right now. "It's how much you're willing to learn from the younger generation that makes you successful, and not saying, 'I'm smarter and wiser and more experienced, so you better look up to me,'" says Blue. Recruiters recommend that older employees show their willingness to learn by getting some training at a community college, or even volunteering at local nonprofits to learn computer skills.
Dennis Ciscel took that advice to heart and jumped from a 20-year career in social work into a technical writer position. He interviewed with a boss who's half his age, but Ciscel said he was determined not to make it an issue: "I heard a lot of people talk a lot about age, and I made a mental decision not to think about that." Ciscel says he shaved off his beard and tried to look less like an old social worker than a new employee eager to learn. "Some people just don't get how to go about this, and I certainly don't blame them -- it's hard," says Ciscel. "But to quote Bob Dylan, 'the times are a-changin'."
Rucker and other career counselors admit there's room for the ambitious and talented to move out of the conventional job market and make a place for themselves in high tech. But that doesn't mean the market isn't stacked against them, or that youth-dominated companies aren't predisposed to disregard them or make them feel uncomfortable. "Ageism does exist, and it's not just a matter of reinventing yourself," says Rucker. Older professionals "know when they walk in for an interview and they're older than everyone else in the room that they don't have a chance to get the job, nor do they want the job." What has Austin done, Rucker asks, to promote opportunities for the third of the population that's over the age of 44 and doesn't want to wear T-shirts to work?
Recruiter Angela Loeb says her clients have definitely felt the "Oh my God, another youthful environment" reaction when entering a lot of Austin workplaces. Even baby boomers who were once hip to youth culture themselves and still crave creative, non-traditional work environments sometimes can't breach the generational barriers at work, says Loeb. Boomers feel that their old team-oriented spirit served pretty well, she says, but the younger crowd is more inclined to prize fierce individualism. "I don't think it's a conscious decision to discriminate, but [boomers] feel the changes going on in the workplace, and they're colliding with it." It doesn't help matters, she says, that this new generation of companies are less experienced at applying employment laws.
Carol Macdonell, 36, a former office manager, is thinking about going to school for some technical training. But she hasn't been encouraged by the experience of a friend who took a job at a multimedia company. "At first it was all this, 'Woohoo, tech,'" says Macdonell, "but once she got in, she was totally disappointed. It was a bunch of smart-mouthed kids, and she was the old cow." Macdonell says her friend lasted one year before she was downsized.
The consequences of not fitting into the high tech culture in Austin can lead to some serious belt-tightening -- or worse, finding your job eliminated and having nowhere to land. Professionals who want to keep pulling down the good salaries in Austin will have to stay abreast of new trends and adopt a flexible attitude, says Pat Goodwin, of Drake Beam Morin, but she points out that plenty of the new jobs being created in Austin won't pay the bills. There's a "hidden group" of professionals out there holding down three jobs to stay afloat, says Goodwin. Garvin, too, says he's seeing clients take retail jobs to hold them over while they look for a salary that will sustain them.
Austin's dirty little secret is that while big-name companies have been setting up new offices here, they haven't been bringing their highly paid, top-level administrative positions. Instead, they've brought sales offices -- staffed primarily with the entry-level shirt and tie crowd willing to work for a $30,000 paycheck. Apple, Charles Schwab, Sears, Sitel, and Prodigy are among the companies whose presence in Austin is defined mainly by their call centers. "Bill," for one, got so tired of telecommunications sales after five years that he finally set up his own consulting business to hold him over until he can find another career. At 41, he said, he was tired of trying to find "a worthy company to work for," one that paid outside the 20K salary range. "They just hire young people who don't know any better and exploit them," says Bill, referring to previous employers PrimeCo PCS and Nextel.
What many in Austin don't see that outsiders from big cities see clearly, says Rucker, is that many companies in Austin have tailored their salaries and job opportunities to take advantage of the young labor force -- and that's hurt everyone except the precious few who caught hold of the digital wave. And even high tech recruiters concede that there are plenty of good reasons for seasoned professionals to avoid that culture. Jon Howard, of Triangle Technology, says professionals in their 40s and 50s can make good money in the tech industry, but most who do take only the most upper-end, selective positions. Otherwise, he says, the stress of the workplace isn't worth it for them. "The older you get, you don't have the time or the desire to spend all night working on the computer -- your priorities change," says Howard.
Garvin is a Texas native who remembers the banking and real estate collapse in the Eighties and sees more pain ahead in the labor market, especially for older employees. There are positive signs that the Austin business community is reacting to the impending crunch, he says, noting an upcoming job fair hosted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Austin Software Council, and Capital Area Workforce Development Board. But the stress is at a level where Garvin fears that even this article will "rub salt in a lot of wounds." Older workers have been on the outside looking in at the high tech party for several years, says Garvin, but now it's closing time and a wave of displaced tech workers is about to come pouring out into the already crowded market. Will Austin learn a lesson this time around and become more sensitive to the need for a more diverse job market?
Garvin hopes that as local industry reabsorbs its laid-off workers, recruiters will rethink the wisdom of perpetuating the youth-dominated workplace and give more consideration to the talents of midlife workers. Maybe the humbling of Austin's New Economy will lead to some reconciliation for those pushed out to the margins in the past, he says. It's time for Austin to grow up economically like its big brothers to the north and east, says Garvin. "Houston and Dallas have been through slumps and learned to diversify," he says. "Consequently, they don't suffer as much as Austin from high tech downturns."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.