New tricks: Training for older workers

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You can't teach an old dog new tricksIs there any point training older workers when they are about to retire? You could be missing out on a golden opportunity to retain skills and knowledge in the workforce, as Louise Druce finds out.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks, so the saying goes, but companies could be making a grave mistake by writing off training for older workers.

There are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding employees approaching retirement: they're winding down and no longer interested in the company, they'll have to take more days off sick, they're too stuck in their ways to change, they'll put in as little effort as possible until they get the gold watch...

"We need to know how to switch older workers back on again in ways that make sense to them."

Dianah Worman, CIPD

It may be true of the odd one or two people but it is attitudes such as these that are stifling a truly dynamic workforce. Business experts have long been waxing lyrical about issues such as plugging the skills gap, encouraging retention and talent management, so surely it makes sense not to alienate or fail to develop people who have experience and knowledge companies can tap into.

"Does age really matter?" asks Dianah Worman, adversity advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD). "Your business needs to have the best skills, keep the talent and provide the stability it needs, as well as fresh thoughts and ideas in order to sustain its own performance. It makes no sense to ignore pockets of skills and expertise. Knowledge is power."

Is anybody there?

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of people working over state pension age increased by 35,000 to 1.258 million between September-November 2007. But according to separate statistics from the CIPD, only 38% of those aged 50-64 plan to carry on working beyond 65.

There is some debate around how much this has been affected by stringent age discrimination laws, especially the legality and effectiveness of having a statutory retirement age of 65. However, employee engagement and job flexibility also have a major role to play. CIPD research shows 31% of those people who said they wouldn't work past retirement age would be tempted if career structures were not so rigid.

The number of people working over state pension age increased by 35,000 to 1.258 million between September-November 2007.
Office for National Statistics

By 2010, 40% of the workforce will be aged 45 and over.
Age Positive

Only 38% of those aged 50-64 plan to carry on working beyond 65.
CIPD

"People, whatever their age, want to have a meaningful role and to connect to their business," says Colin Tenwick, CEO of recruitment firm StepStone. "We still have this view you retire at the top or peak of your career; you have reached the maximum level. What we don't have is career structures that enable people to start moving towards part-time or more flexible roles, or bringing in younger people to fulfil leadership roles and then giving other people roles to support and develop them."

TrainingZone.co.uk members have also been seeing the effects of neglecting older workers, who are often seeking new challenges. Development consultant Sue Hewitt [link to item 180469] is one of them. "Research from our Fresh Steps course for older workers found that many felt invisible and that their employer had no development to offer them," she says. "We have found that delivering targeted development for this cohort of staff results in greater motivation and energy, sharing of knowledge and willingness to take on new roles and challenges, reinvigorating them for their next five or 10 years at work."

Train to gain

Ironically, the perceived apathy towards developing older workers has created the fresh challenge of encouraging them to participate in training when it is available. This means companies have to take a closer look at what their learning needs are, what opportunities are available, how this would benefit their role and how this fits with the overall company goals, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all solution.

According to Worman, this could mean moving outside the old concepts of only offering specifically job-related training to stimulate activity in other areas that could enhance their role. "We need to know how to switch older workers back on again in ways that make sense to them," she adds.

"Saying there is very little support being given to encourage older people to continue to contribute to a business beyond a particular time scale tends to indicate businesses don't have a coherent strategy in place to attract, recruit or retain older workers."

Colin Tenwick, StepStone

One of the facets of the training argument employers will be most concerned with, however, is cost. Is there really any point in spending out on programmes if a person is going to retire a year later? "If it were extensive technical training where it was clearly agreed there was a heavy cost involved and there was a need for an employer to recoup that investment, I can see the argument for rationing training in some way based on that," concedes Alan Beasley, policy and advice specialist at The Employers Forum on Age.

However, he says this will only apply to a small proportion of the training most employers provide. "People need to be much more open in considering requests, irrespective of age," he adds.

Knowledge is power

Another viewpoint is that the cost of training is a small price to pay when weighed up against the loss of skills and knowledge if a person retires. Also, if older workers are still engaged with the company, they are more likely to want to stay on past 65. "Saying there is very little support being given to encourage older people to continue to contribute to a business beyond a particular time scale tends to indicate businesses don't have a coherent strategy in place to attract, recruit or retain older workers," says Tenwick.

On the flip side, older workers could offer the training themselves through coaching and mentoring schemes. It is also a good way for companies to capture their knowledge and use it to pass down to future staff generations. "What is appropriate in the way in which people learn or are trained may well vary according to the age and experience of a candidate for training," says Beasley. "Older and more experienced people are probably more in tune with a self-help basis approach than younger people are."

Of course, mentoring may not suit everyone, which is why Worman advises companies to make sure all employers are valued properly, whatever their role, or other valuable knowledge and skills could be lost. "If someone can add to your business in any kind of way, they're worth it and they want to stay working with you, what's the problem?" she adds. "It doesn't matter how old they are."

Photo of Gillian LandsellCare worker Gillian Landsell couldn't see the point of starting an NVQ at the age of 61, after reaching an age when most of her contemporaries were retiring.

She was offered the chance to take part in the NVQ Stars programme by her employers BUPA Care Services as part of a programme implemented by NVQUK.

"It felt strange to be thinking about making a commitment to training at my time of life," admits Gillian. "What finally convinced me was that the course was specifically designed to my job as activities co-ordinator and I felt my time wouldn't be wasted learning skills that would never be needed.

"Also the NVQ was structured so that I could complete it in a few months, meaning whatever knowledge I gained could be applied straight away."

Gillian successfully completed an NVQ in Social Care within three months and immediately began to see the benefits.

"What started to change my attitude to the course was the work we did on equality and diversity," says Gillian. "It made me realise there were different ways in which I could develop the services I was offering to residents and to ensure everyone was being treated as an individual rather than simply looking at the group's overall needs.

"It made me question what I'd done before and I'm very proud of the changes I instigated as a result. The whole experience was very satisfying and having a new challenge really got my brain cells working."

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