Ageing but ready for the fray

Written by James Blackhurst on 1 May 2013 in Features

James Blackhurst examines the unprecedented challenges presented by the rapidly-increasing number of older workers

Workers now aged 50 will be working for another 15 to 20 years, while the number of individuals working over 65 is forecast to rise markedly following the abolition of the default retirement age in 20111. One in three workers will be aged over 50 by 20202.

The implications for employers and training organisations are enormous - and not without controversy. While many accept there will be major benefits, as a result of a more experienced workforce, there are also concerns that it will deny younger workers opportunities to progress.

The UK labour market continues to suffer from reported skills shortages, in spite of the downturn and depressed levels of employment.

Retaining the skills of older workers in industries and professions in which there are skills shortages will become more and more critical, especially when combined with uncertainties about the through-flow of graduates, due to significant increases in English university fees.

While some employers are dealing with issues around the ageing workforce, many appear to be doing very little. The principle hurdle seems to be widespread unawareness of the demographic flux, combined with a lack of ability to manage the employee development and training implications.

Data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has identified three steps to enable employers to make the most of the rapidly evolving situation: drawing up a strong business case to persuade senior management of the overriding need to plan for this inevitable change; implementing proactive measures to counteract the stereotypical perceptions of ageing; making age a central tenet of any talent management strategy3.

It has been recognised that organisations that respond appropriately to the challenges of an ageing workforce will gain a significant competitive edge, in terms of recruiting and retaining talent and also through supporting the wellbeing and engagement of employees of all ages.

The business case for older workers is strong and research shows their impact and experience within the organisation enables better customer service, enhanced knowledge retention and can help to address talent and skills shortages4. All of this will help to guard against potential age discrimination claims, thereby mitigating damage to the brand and any associated costs.

Nonetheless, even the most enlightened and forward-thinking employer faces substantial issues in overcoming entrenched views among managers and workers about the desirability and practicality of training and developing older workers.

There is also evidence that UK managers who do see training as an option probably won't want to resource it internally. Research in 2012 by Van Dalen, Hankens and Schippers into managerial attitudes in the UK, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain5 found that the UK had the biggest proportion of employers regarding training as a means of retaining older workers. However, UK managers were least likely to see themselves as being responsible for paying for it. Unlike their Greek, Dutch and Spanish counterparts, UK managers tended to expect funding to come from the government.

Research tells us that employee participation in training remains relatively steady from the recruitment of workers in their 20s up to their early 50s, when it starts to fall away6.

The reasons for the decline in training after 50 are debatable. Our experience is that most older employees don't become any less enthusiastic about training but they feel that the training needs of younger colleagues are prioritised above their own, regardless of employer claims to the contrary.

Another explanation for low participation in training programmes by older staff is that they are less motivated because they see the end of their working lives approaching and regard qualifications as a way of obtaining long-term career benefits.

All the same, business leaders and training providers must drive the agenda for training older workers if the yawning skills gap is to be avoided.

Managers in all too many workplaces have negative opinions of the trainability of older workers, sticking to the outmoded belief that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. This is a situation that we must all work to change.

As Stephen McNair has demonstrated in his research, low participation by older workers in training programmes is more often than not down exclusion because - at least in our experience at Jigsaw - very few people of any age refuse training when it is offered to them7.

Regardless of the reasons, lower participation among older workers in training has serious consequences for their productivity and means employers and training providers must come up with innovative solutions.

Ways to encourage older workers to take part in training and development activities include enabling them to learn at their own pace, in groups of a similar age, and using hands-on learning methods.

A skills development survey for the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions revealed some interesting results, not least that older workers receive less training than younger workers, and older women workers have fewest opportunities of all8.

Moreover, the Acas discussion paper The Employment Relations Challenges of an Ageing Workforce, by Emma Parry and Lynette Harris, makes a convincing argument that many older workers do not see their careers as quietly tailing off into retirement9. Instead, a significant number of older workers are still chasing promotions, seeking to work fewer, or more flexible, hours, looking to switch to a different employer, or even aiming to embark on a fresh career path.

Enlightened employers need to give older workers the support they need to make internal career changes, through training, appraisal and personal development systems. Outsourced training provision is an additional option that allows older people to move outside an organisation, perhaps to a new career.

So how best can employers tackle the challenges heading their way?

Any employer that adopts a head-in-the-sand approach to the ageing workforce will lose out significantly in coming years. They will fail to retain the very individuals best able to help them stay alive and thrive in today's uncompromising environment.

Businesses need to take an innovative approach to workforce issues in a highly competitive environment. If they don't, they may find their most gifted people are recruited by their rivals - and this includes seasoned employees with broad industry knowledge and deep technical insights.

Senior managers can play a vital role in changing attitudes to - and, indeed, among - older workers by talking about the issue and placing it firmly at the top of their business development agenda.

The concept of an age-diverse workforce is here to stay and the organisations that succeed will be those that embrace this phenomenon and positively tap into its many benefits.

Employers should benchmark, measure and evaluate the results of change as part of their business plan because effective workforce management is a powerful business improvement tool. Training, and developing the skills of, your most productive and talented individuals - irrespective of age - will always deliver benefits.

For example, Stephen Barthorpe, sustainable business manager at MITIE, one of the UK's largest strategic outsourcing companies, points to the benefits that older employees can bring and the necessity for up-skilling them. He cites the maturity and attitude to work of older employees, who have financial and family commitments that reinforce a positive approach to employment due to the number of dependants they have.

Barthorpe also believes they have their work-life balance under control, making them reliable and crucial to some sectors such as facilities management.

Older people are generally more able to mentor younger people in life and work-based skills, he says, so, if they lack training and development, it could have a 'multiplier effect' on the younger workforce.

He concludes that some older employees have the academic qualifications required but they may have been awarded a long time ago. Some may have been developed on the job through experiential learning, increasing the need for new methods of training to bring them up to date in a modern workplace.

Looking to the immediate future, those aged 23 and under wishing to attain an apprenticeship will continue to be supported by government funding, ensuring that essential skills and practical job-related experience are brought to the employer. However, from August 2013, we are expecting to see a major reduction in the funding available to the over 25s. There are substantial changes in the way in which the Education Funding Agency and Skills Funding Agency fund schools, colleges and other providers.

Following the recommendations of the Wolf Review, the EFA will move to funding based on students rather than qualifications - possibly the most radical change in FE funding for 20 years.

The SFA will introduce a new 'streamlined' system and also stop funding providers for courses at Level 3 and above for people over the age of 23. At the same time, those who offer HE funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England will need to keep abreast of changes to the HE system.

While there is an obvious need for the government to focus on value for money and growth, is 25 years of age and above not too young to be classed as irrelevant to the future growth of the economy?

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

James Blackhurst is managing director of Jigsaw Training. He can be contacted on +44 (0)1772 430004 or at

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