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Ageism is forcing many to look outside Silicon Valley, but tech hubs offer little respite

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SAN FRANCISCO — For years, job hunting over the age of 40 in the youth-obsessed Silicon Valley could prove hazardous to your career.

But judging from the experiences of technology workers roaming the country in search of job opportunities elsewhere, ageism is a universal problem in the industry.

"It's not just Silicon Valley. It is everywhere," says Pete Denes, 59, who used to run a $200 million sales division at Hitachi and now sells yard and monument signs in his native Omaha after a go at real estate in Phoenix. "It is very frustrating after a while."

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From California to Arizona and now Omaha, Denes says he traveled far and wide in search of work in tech. Nearly a decade and 300 rejected resumes later, he concluded it's "virtually impossible to get my foot in the door anywhere."

His experience is becoming increasingly common.

Age is the silent career killer in the tech industry. While companies openly wrestle with the lack of racial and gender diversity, regularly releasing workforce demographics, they refuse to disclose the average age of their staffers and offer little in the way of internal support for older workers.

A rise in complaints, and lawsuits, over ageism in Silicon Valley and elsewhere the past few years has contributed to the reticence among major tech employers to speak up on the topic.

"Systemic issues contribute to tech and (non-tech) fields," says Brooks Holtom, management professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.

In tech, the issue is pronounced, he says, because start-ups are "based on young people taking risks, paying entry-level wages, to start companies."

The median age of an American worker is 42. Yet at Facebook it's 29, Google 30, Apple 31, Amazon 30 and Microsoft 33, according to self-reported employee data collected by research firm PayScale last year. (It did not collect data this year.) Most job candidates at those companies are 25 to 34 years old, according to data collected by Glassdoor, a jobs and recruiting website.

As the population ages, discrimination in hiring and on the job is becoming more pronounced not only in Silicon Valley but in tech hubs throughout the U.S., where workers relocated from the San Francisco Bay Area to get a fresh start.

That leaves fewer options for "older" workers. They either relocate, move to another field or — in rare cases — start their own companies.

At the suggestion of some career counselors, job applicants in their 40s and 50s shave years from their LinkedIn profiles and resumes by truncating their job histories to appear younger and improve their marketability in the age-conscious tech industry.

The difficulties faced by job seekers in their 40s and 50s are especially troubling, with hundreds of thousands unfilled in the USA. The booming tech market expanded 2% last year to approximately 7.3 million workers as the digital economy continued to flourish in jobs for software, cybersecurity and cloud computing, according to Cyberstates 2017, an annual analysis of the nation's tech industry by technology association CompTIA.

"Diversity of experience and thought is critical for any organization, industry or society to thrive," says Todd Thibodeaux, CEO of CompTIA, which offers retraining programs for military veterans, the unemployed and under-employed adults. "Tech will have a projected shortage of 1.8 million workers by 2022. Older, re-trained workers, women and people of color need to be part of the future of tech."

And yet, it took 350 resumes and 60 job interviews in six months for Julianne Wurm, 48, to land a job as a learning designer at a major biotech company in the San Francisco area.

"I began to think, am I employable? The culture skews so young, and so male," Wurm says.

"Ageism is very real, especially in start-ups where being older is seen as a liability," says Aileen Gemma Smith, CEO of Vizalytics, a start-up in New York that provides the New York Mayor's office of tech and innovation, and Danish Tourism with business intelligence.

"It assumes you won't work hard, long hours, and have out-of-date skills," says Smith, 45. "I have certainly experienced investors in New York and Silicon Valley who looked down on myself and co-founder (chief technology officer Chris Smith is 55) for not being 'young' enough to innovate."

Robin Wolaner, 63, is chief operating officer of non-profit We Care Solar. She was the chairman of the board advising Skout, a mobile app company, in 2013 when she decided she had another CEO run in her.

But the former CEO of Sunset Publishing and executive vice president at CNet soon discovered "good tech CEO jobs were not going to my peers." So she moved to non-profits.

A long-time observer of Silicon Valley, Wolaner has observed an interesting evolution in how investors view tech executives: In the late 1990s, she says, VCs routinely brought aboard seasoned veterans — those over 40 — when start-ups hit about $250 million in revenue to take that company to the next level.

By 2012, and the IPO success of Facebook, the calculus had changed. Younger founders like Mark Zuckerberg refused to cede control, closing the door for older peers to step in, she says.

The nation, and Silicon Valley employees, are getting older and staying in the workforce longer yet ageist comments increasingly are being directed at younger and younger workers deemed "old." It used to be workers in their 40s were treated as over-the-hill; today, it's employees in their mid-30s.

Lou Covey, 64, first noticed the change in behavior when he hit his mid-30s. His peers in tech began to comment on his age, and he found it increasingly difficult to land jobs in technical writing and public relations.

Covey has freelanced for more than two decades because he could not find work after 40, he says.

"I've reached a point of acceptance and really don't miss the 9-to-5, but ageism is pretty apparent — and it is hard wired," says Covey, who remains in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Recruiting agencies, for example, are using automation to screen out applicants over 40 without questioning their age, according to Covey.

Two days after he applied for a job as senior content editor at a major tech company, Covey says he received a robo-call from a recruiting agency that did not identify the company nor who it was representing. After answering a question about what year he graduated from high school (1970), he says the phone line went dead. When Covey called the tech company, he says, the company blamed the recruiting agency.

Michelle Zawrothy Dyson's employment odyssey started in the early 2000s, after she left Silicon Valley for Boulder, Colo. The start-up world in the Rocky Mountain state wasn't strong and by 2007, at 40, her career in tech was over.

"When I tried to knock on tech's door for a job, even though I was qualified as f---, it refused to answer because I was too old," Dyson, now 50, says. "I couldn't knock on the door. The door was closed."

But for Dyson, there was a happy ending.

The former publicist reinvented herself, learning digital marketing and Adobe Suite. That eventually led to a post as administrative assistant in a canning equipment company and, recently, as marketing director for Deeper Africa, a Safari vacation company.

"It's no six-figure salary, but it's something I love," she says. "It was time to move on."