Israel's Gray Market: Surviving in High-tech Through to Retirement

High-tech is forever seen as a young person’s game, but there are ways to avoid being consigned to the scrap heap at 40.

Robert De Niro, left, in "The Intern."
Paramount Pictures

“The chances of entering the meeting room in a high-tech company and meeting more than one or two people with gray hair may have risen in recent years, but it is still a very small chance,” says G., who is in his 50s and still works in a high-tech firm.

“Usually, it will be the company’s legal adviser, accountant or, very rarely, the CEO. They tell us the industry is maturing with its people, but you really don’t see it on the ground,” he adds.

G.’s comments are backed up by data from the Economy and Industry Ministry. A report prepared by the ministry in 2014 shows that 38% of high-tech employees were in the 25-34 age group in 2011, compared to only 28% in other industries. At the other end of the spectrum, those aged 55-64 made up only 11.4% of high-tech workers – compared to almost 18% in other sectors. The figures show a small but consistent drop in the number of older workers in high-tech, as opposed to an increase in other businesses.

Still, the age distribution in high-tech is changing as well: In 2007, over 40% of employees were under 34, and this figure has fallen since then, while those in the 34-44 age bracket had risen to over 33% in 2011 – compared to 29% four years earlier. The next age group up, 45-54, has remained stable in numbers. In other words, the high-tech sector may be getting older, but it is doing so very slowly and at a slower rate than in other professions.

Amir (not his real name), 53, has worked in high-tech since 1989. “I started working in a large company as an engineer, and I’m still there,” he relates. “Toward the end of my 30s I realized I wanted to stay in high-tech – but not as an engineer, because it’s a very grueling position, and it’s also almost impossible to advance from. I made a great effort and moved to writing software, and today I’m a team leader. It’s not a senior position in the company, but I’m satisfied.”

Amir compares a high-tech career to the letter “Y”: You start in a development or engineering job, until you reach a fork. From there, you advance to either a management track or continue to be a professional with a major contribution to the company.

“After five years in a company, this path causes people to think which track they want to follow and invest in. For those who are brilliant, it’s easier, of course. And it’s important to remember that, at every age, it’s a sector in which you need to work hard to preserve your status,” he adds.

Fierce competition with the young

Dr. Lee-Bath Nelson, 50, took a different tack. She’s one of the three founders of Make it LEO, which offers software services that enable companies to benefit from distributed manufacturing without paying the price through a loss of intellectual property or digital piracy.

She founded her startup in her late 40s. “I worked in high-tech as a student and left the industry in order to do a PhD in finance at Stanford, after which I moved into the area of venture capital. Now I’m returning,” she says.

Whether it was by chance or not, her startup – located in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood in north Tel Aviv – employs mostly those who are 40-plus. “When we began to recruit employees, we looked for the best,” says Nelson. “Forty-plus high-tech [workers] have the right experience. People in this age range have seen a lot, and as an employer I prefer them over young people who come to me as a tabula rasa.”

Like Amir, Nelson also believes that the ability of those 40 and older to survive in a tough industry depends on the person, and they must be brilliant and with a particularly high work ethic.

“I’ve seen quite a few of people who said they want to work fewer hours in order to have leisure time, but here there’s no room for that because you need to give [all of yourself]. It’s easier for young people who still don’t have a family to invest in work, while for the older people – who have already been working in that manner for a long time – it’s harder to give up such things again,” she says.

Igor Shindel, 46, an engineer at General Electric, concurs. “There’s fierce competition with the young people who come to work with energy and a great ability to learn,” he says. “Those who survive are the ones who aren’t lazy, aren’t afraid to compete, and continue to learn and keep up with the technology and meet the up-to-date criteria.” Shindel emphasizes that there’s no room for compromise when it comes to the latter.

Shindel has moved between companies and says he found work easily because he always had his finger on the pulse for everything concerning the demands of the job market. Ironically, though, the switch to a managerial position distances the employee from the professional innovation, he says. “Engineers advance to managerial jobs, and move far from the code and technology. And then, when they are cast off, it’s hard for them to come back in a professional position.”

Staying up-to-date

The Economy and Industry Ministry (which until recently was responsible for employment matters, too) report from 2014 shows how the question of employment of older workers in high-tech also concerns the government. The report, which was concerned with increasing the supply of experienced manpower for high-tech, revealed that one of the main reasons for a shortage in workers in high-tech was the suboptimal use of the existing manpower, which was expressed in part by older workers (those aged 45 and up) leaving the sector early.

At a time when the age 45-54 bracket makes up about a quarter of the overall workforce, in high-tech they are only 18%. The same applies to the 55-64 age group, which is even more underrepresented in high-tech.

The report outlines the main barriers for the employment of older people in high-tech: the long, grueling hours; the common method of recruiting (“friends bring friends”); the rapid erosion of technical knowledge compared to other industries; a narrow management pyramid; and high volatility in global markets.

Alexander Katz, 58, head of the development services unit at Experis Israel – which is made up mostly of employees aged 50 and up – mentions another challenge: “Most managers are young and don’t know how to deal with older workers. They choose to work with a team of people like themselves.”

Nati Avrahami, the CEO of Taldor (which specializes in IT services), believes people who are over 40 or 45 run into a problem when they try to fit into the job market, even though they have a great deal of experience. “Large companies have a broad age range for employees, and I have not run into a person who was fired just because they were 55,” he says.

The big problem for older workers is reintegrating when they’ve been laid off, says Avrahami. Even though the high-tech industry is seen as innovative, it’s also possible to find older technologies alongside the new technologies; these require accumulated knowledge, and age plays much less of a role, he says.

Older workers are much more vulnerable during a wave of layoffs in high-tech firms, says Amir. “They are usually the people with the highest salaries,” he adds.

“If an appropriate management job doesn’t exist or if they’re not contributing significantly to the company, it’s easier to send them home. From the company’s perspective, they don’t have an employment horizon compared to the young person who has another 30 years to work,” notes Amir.

But it’s easier to survive in hardware companies, because experience is an advantage there compared to the more cutting-edge software, he says. It’s better for a person who wants to survive in the industry not to work directly in development jobs, which wear you out the quickest, everywhere, adds Amir. “But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to reach an advanced age in high-tech; it’s definitely possible. You simply need to move, fill various positions in the company and become an important part. And, of course, always be as up-to-date as possible.”