Developing talent in the over-50s – are we doing enough?

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Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 11 March 2015

The UK is experiencing an aging workforce, and this is particularly prevalent in industries such as construction and engineering. Both those industries have gone a long way to try and counteract the issue – increasing investment in apprenticeship schemes, for example – but the majority of those interventions are focused on bringing in and developing talent at the younger end of the scale, i.e. school and university leavers.

It is important to focus on the younger generation in order to secure a long and healthy talent pipeline for the future. But there seems to be worryingly few development opportunities for those nearer the end of their working lives. This not only has a negative impact on the affected individuals in that age group, but also means employers are missing out on harnessing that talent and losing the opportunities that come with it.

Fewer opportunities

Healthcare insurance provider AXA PPP recently surveyed 2000 employees and 250 employers, and found that over-50s were significantly less likely to be offered development opportunities than their younger colleagues, with only 25 per cent of over-50s having been on a training course in the last six months.

27 per cent of over-50s said they haven’t had the chance to learn new things or develop workplace skills at all in the last year, whereas only 14 per cent of younger workers reported this problem.

Younger workers were also twice as likely as over-50s to have discussed career progression with their line manager in the last six months (29 per cent of younger workers VS only 15 per cent of over-50s).

No lack of commitment

These figures are extremely worrying, and research suggests the issue is not down to a lack of desire on the part of the over-50s employees.

In a recent survey, financial services firm Prudential found that more than half of those near retirement age would consider working past the state pension age in order to improve their financial situation, and nearly a quarter of those who were due to finish working this year have already chosen to delay their retirement.

This would suggest that, in general, people are willing to work hard and add value in the later years of their career. The blocker, it seems, is the disproportionate amount of weight being given to developing workers below the age of 50.

Time to change perceptions

Clearly there is some work to do in terms of persuading employers that older workers are just as keen to develop and learn new skills as their younger counterparts, and that there is value in such an investment.

We are constantly hearing about looming skills gaps across a number of industries, with government and business looking for ways in which those gaps can be closed in order to prevent a future disaster within the UK economy.

The answer could be right in front of us. If there are people with 15-20 years left of their working life, who are more than willing to learn and grow and continue to add increasing value to the companies for which they work but are not being given the opportunity to do so, clearly there is a lot of untapped potential talent sitting in UK businesses. Would it not benefit all parties, and the wider economy, if those over-50s workers were equipped with new, in-demand skills?

Retaining knowledge

A vast amount of knowledge, both technical and institutional, sits within the over-50s population. Sometimes you need people to adapt to a changing environment, but you don’t want to lose that knowledge altogether.

One way to harness it is through ‘reverse mentoring,’ i.e. enabling younger workers to share their knowledge and insight with older workers, and vice versa. Both age groups can help each other out in different ways, but it is up to employers to facilitate that sharing of capability and experience.

Set the precedent for the next generation

There are two strands to this issue: Firstly, the impact on the wider economy. Not only does the prospect of a generation of undertrained workers pose a potential threat to the productivity of the UK workforce, but there is also a huge missed opportunity if older workers are willing, but not afforded the opportunity, to learn new workplace skills.

Secondly, we all surely have a wider responsibility to ensure that the people who have dedicated decades of their lives to UK businesses are not then forgotten when they reach a certain age.

Thankfully, attitudes appear to be shifting, and people are at least talking seriously about the issue. If changes begin to happen now, there is a chance the next generation won’t face the same problems when they reach their 50s.

Lyndon Wingrove is director of capabilities and consulting at Thales L&D []


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