Gray hair: Essential ingredient for a successful dot-com

ITworld.com –

Dot-com startups are notoriously ageist, often adhering to the stereotype of a group of hotshot twentysomethings just out of college with no families, working through the night and living on pizza. While there's a lot to be said for boundless youthful energy, a little experience can go a long way, and those same startups may do well by bringing in some seasoned, older executives to help guide the company on its mission.

Grant Peterson, CEO of SUMmedia.com, a provider of small business Websites and online couponing, attributes his company's success to the diverse group of people running the show. "We've got a lot of gray hair in the organization, and we've got a lot of youth in the organization. It's a good mix." A quick review of SUMmedia's executive biographies will show that it's not run by a typical wet-behind-the-ears, just-out-of- college staff. Peterson himself brings 25 years of experience to the table, and the company's president, John Veltheer, contributes a background in venture capital financing and investor relations, something younger executives also often lack. Often, it's just those types of connections that more experienced executives bring with them that can put a new company over the edge to success.

No substitute for experience

"I don't think there's any substitute for experience. Older workers have that experience, and they have a wealth of knowledge to offer to these companies," says Andrea Wooten, president of Green Thumb, a national nonprofit corporation whose mission is to provide employment-related assistance to older and disadvantaged Americans. Green Thumb, in partnership with Microsoft's Skills 2000 training initiative, trains older workers for high-end technology jobs, and Wooten has found that Green Thumb's trainees are in big demand. "We've had great success. Dell and Sears in Austin, Texas, hired most of our participants ranging in age from 55 to 75." Interestingly, Green Thumb's 75- year-old student was the first to be hired.

Despite dot-com stereotypes, plenty of large companies such as Xerox rely on older workers. Xerox spokesperson Christa Carone says, "It really comes down to diversity in the workplace. For Xerox, we view diversity as both a moral imperative and a competitive advantage. The reason for that is Xerox believes that people of all ages, including our older workers and workers from different backgrounds, bring unique perspectives in creativity in solving real business problems."

The high-tech workforce, besides being young, is very mobile. That young hotshot you gave the big bonus to last year may get a better offer next month and be out the door. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an overall downward trend in employment tenure, with the average worker staying with one employer only an average of 3.6 years (with technology-related vocations on the low end of that average). However, the report shows that older workers tend to stay with one employer longer, a factor which will ultimately save you dollars in training and replacement costs. In fact, the median tenure for workers aged 45 to 54 was more than double that of workers aged 25 to 34.

We're getting older

The 75 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 increased the size of the labor market, and in recent years have raised the average age of the workforce. As the pool of available workers continues to age, companies need to take older workers seriously because they will grow increasingly dependent on them. In 1995, workers aged 45 and older represented 31 percent of the labor force, but by 2005 -- due in large part to the aging baby boom population -- that figure will increase to 37 percent. Much of that growth will occur among 50- to 60-year-olds. That means that the available pool of younger workers will shrink in comparison to available older ones. The good news is that baby boomers have done better than any other generation in terms of education, with 25 to 30 percent having college degrees.

As boomers continue to age, those youthful dot-coms will start to show a little gray hair, and the level of experience that gray hair brings will only serve to enhance their success.

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