IT RECRUITMENT Lynne Curry discovers some ageist attitudes among employers in the computer industry
Mike Cullen is 39 and never expects to have a staff job again. As a computer analyst/programmer, he decided to become a freelance 13 years ago. Now he doubts he would get a permanent job even if he wanted one. The computer industry is often singled out as one of the worst for discrimination on the grounds of age.

Rosemary Bentley, a London-based consultant in her fifties, maintains that the suitability of her skills comes way down the list when she applies. "I have rung up for jobs I could have done standing on my head and not even got an interview. It's really quite devastating, exactly like being tossed on the scrap heap for no reason."

Recruiters like to talk about old dogs and new tricks in relation to constantly changing skills, but Mr Cullen, chairman of the contractors' specialist group of the British Computer Society (the ICC), says they are not totally frank about other reasons. "The fundamental reason for ageism in computing is that we are not yet a profession. Nobody has a problem about a surveyor who's 50 and with a chartered accountant, experience wins over youth every time. But if somebody goes into our job aged 40, there's a feeling that they couldn't be just an analyst/programmer. They would have to have seniority, and a salary that reflects it."

One leading recruiter agrees with Mr Cullen, and has taken the bold step of removing the age reference from his candidate database. Gary Ashworth, founder and chief executive of Abacus Recruitment, who recently became president of the Institute of Employment Consultants, says employers' insistence on youth is slowing down staff placements. "I am very frustrated that people are still discriminating on the grounds of age, even though there are such great skills shortages. Although we're the servants of our clients, we're encouraging them not to make decisions based on age."

Mr Ashworth rejects the view that because the computer industry is young and fast-moving, the people in it should be young and fast-moving, too. "What 'old dogs' lose perhaps in the function of learning ability, they gain in relation to tenacity and perseverance," he says. "Of course skill sets are changing very quickly, but they're also changing quickly for young people, who have to learn them, too."

Steve Shirley, who is in her sixties and is founder and life president of the employment consultant FI International, says older people are sometimes their own worst enemies in interviews. "They can come in as rigid, knowing all the answers and how to do it, and they talk themselves out of the market. When the world was moving slowly the fact that people had experience was incredibly useful. Now it's still useful if it's combined with wisdom, but what is really needed is the ability to cope with tomorrow's problems, and that's much more about being responsive to new ideas and fitting in with today's culture."

But as someone who changed her name from Stephanie to get round sex discrimination, she advises leaving age out on CVs and job applications: "Don't give them that excuse to reject you," she says.