The Curious Case of Thomas Nash: Questions of Age Discrimination in the 3D Printing Industry

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3dp_optomecviwadeal_opt_logoScarcely a month goes by without Optomec announcing a new partnership or case study, a licensing agreement or a new technological application. They’ve been in the news a lot, and for good reason, as the success and popularity of their Aerosol Jet and LENS technologies continue to drive them forward. Unfortunately, the New Mexico company recently hit the headlines for a much less positive reason – a charge of age discrimination.

In 2013, then-53-year-old Thomas Nash began working for Optomec as a paid intern in the company’s Advanced Applications Lab in St. Paul, Minnesota. A year later, he was hired as a full-time employee, despite “tepid” reviews over the course of his internship. Whatever Optomec may have hoped for Nash, his performance didn’t improve as a full-timer, so he was terminated.

“While his supervisors believed he satisfactorily performed the basic and mundane parts of his job, they thought he lacked the critical thinking and troubleshooting skills necessary to help Optomec expand,” stated the National Law Review.

Then things got interesting. Upon his termination, Nash sued Optomec for age discrimination, and the company moved for summary judgment, at which point the court decided that Nash didn’t present enough evidence that his age had played any role in his termination. While he met three of the criteria for a prima facie age discrimination case – he was over 40, he was qualified for his job, and he was adversely affected by the actions of his employer – he was unable to provide evidence for the fourth, which was that he had been replaced by a younger employee.

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In fact, Optomec didn’t fill Nash’s position at all after letting him go, which pretty much blew a hole in case – as did the fact that he had been hired twice by the company, once as an intern and once as a full-time employee. It would hardly make sense that a company would hire a worker at the age of 53, promote him at 54, and suddenly decide that they were through with him at 55. Furthermore, the person who made the termination decision was only a few years younger than Nash, making the ageism claim even harder to back up. Unsurprisingly, the court dismissed the case.

While it’s clear that Nash didn’t have much grounds for his claims of ageism, his case raises some interesting questions in this era of high-tech industry. As the workforce booms with jobs centered around 3D printing, robotics, and other new technology, these positions are largely being filled with young people who have grown up alongside this type of tech and have, in many cases, had the advantage of studying at schools with programs centered around it.

Does this mean that older generations of workers have no place in the new technological workforce? Of course not. Sure, many of them are at a disadvantage in that 3D printing, for example, didn’t exist when they were in school, so they often find themselves playing catch-up, but thanks to open 3D printing courses and training programs, there are ways to gain the necessary skills without having to go back to school and get an entirely new degree. That’s not to say that members of the older generation can’t be experts in technology, either – just because someone is over the age of 50 doesn’t mean that 3D printing and robotics are brand new to them.

06.27.11-Blatent-Age-Discrimination-You-Be-the-Judge-Featured-400x275Do some employers have unconscious – or conscious – biases against older workers, though? From the outside, the tech industry looks like a young person’s game, so it’s all too easy to look at an older applicant and assume that they’re less technologically adept than the 23-year-old applying for the same position, even while the opposite may be true. While there are plenty of documented cases of age discrimination (in every industry, not just tech), Optomec apparently doesn’t have that bias. Nash’s case would have gotten a lot farther, and would likely have gotten a lot more attention, if he had been excelling at his job and was suddenly terminated and replaced by some kid fresh out of college, but all evidence suggests that this was simply a matter of dissatisfaction with his performance.

I do understand Nash’s frustration, especially because he was apparently qualified for his job, and his supervisors did state that he was capable of meeting its requirements in a satisfactory manner. If anything, his case illustrates the fact that it can be tough to survive in the tech industry, which is growing and changing so quickly that it requires constant adaptation. MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom recently led a panel entitled “Teaching the Startup Mentality,” in which he argued that learning the critical thinking skills to be able to adapt to rapid change is just as important as becoming expert in new technology. If what Nash’s supervisors say is true, those critical thinking skills are what he lacked.

That’s not necessarily age-related, but it does show that the industry of today is very different from the industry of yesterday, when someone could learn a trade and be secure in it for decades. Now, one can master a new technological skill and find that it’s obsolete within a year. Being able to think fast and stay on one’s feet is crucial to staying on top of this brave new world of technology, and that’s a challenge for everyone no matter their age. Discuss in the Optomec Hiring & Firing Issue in 3D Industry forum over at 3DPB.com.

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