Workforce aging, skills and training

In its new report on managing an aging workforce, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development sets out an agenda for employers facing a predicted – and predictable – ‘war for talent’. In spite of the recession, the CIPD anticipates that UK employers will need to fill 13.5 million job vacancies in the next decade, but can expect only seven million young people to leave school and college. In current circumstances, immigrants are unlikely to fill this gap.

So employers must rely increasingly on older workers. CIPD recommends that its members follow three steps: building a business case to convince board members and senior managers that they need to plan for this predictable change; tackling head-on the myths and stereotypes of ageing; and making age a factor in your talent management strategy.

We can all expect to hear much more of these arguments in the years ahead. Whether they will shift deeply-held beliefs about the superior efficiency, trainability and energy of youth over age is another matter. More widely, there is the very real political problem of popular beliefs about the labour market: every time a firm sets out a strategy for attracting and retaining older workers, people are quick to protest that this means fewer jobs for the young. It is easy to show that this belief is hardly based on a serious analysis of endogenous economic growth factors. But as debates over immigrant workers show, it is quite another matter to convince voters, and therefore politicians, that the economy doesn’t play out as a zero sum game.

So politicians will be slow to take measures that might imply that they are ignoring young job-seekers; and many senior managers will firmly believe that old dogs are too set in their ways, and can’t be taught new clichés. Others will be more receptive to the CIPD approach, or will even be ahead of the game already.

What role does this imply for education and skills? For a start, as the CIPD notes and as many managers will acknowledge, older workers have built up a body of knowledge about their organisation and role. They will have worked out how to do their job, sometimes even despite the rather odd and changing demands of managers and regulatory bodies; they also have experience of knowledge-creation and sharing that is geared to the specific demands of their workplace. They often show great aptitude for sharing this knowledge with new workers, making them natural and obvious mentors for recently-recruited staff.

We need to understand what older workers already know, and persuade other stakeholders – senior managers particularly – not to fall into the trap of listing their deficits. But we should also be careful not to idealise older workers or romanticise the supposed wisdoms of age. Recent analyses of survey data, both in the UK and internationally, show just how far many in our older generations were penalised by attending schools that were weaker and less well-resourced than today.

Literacy and numeracy prove an interesting example of this. If you believe some newspapers, all young people today are illiterate, innumerate and thick, compared to an older generation who went to selective schools and paid attention. As any experienced adult educator knows, this is a myth. According to the National Research and Development Centre, differences in literacy level fall off particularly sharply after the age of fifty. Skills for Life survey data told a similar story for people aged 55-65, but also showed a rise in the proportion judged at entry level in both literacy and numeracy among people aged 45-54.

But if the Daily Mail view of basic skills is a myth, it is not entirely groundless. Alarmingly, the SfL data also showed a high proportion of 16-19 year olds were at entry level in both literacy and numeracy skills, suggesting that for this generation at least – who went to school under the last Conservative government – might be less literate and numerate than their older fellow-workers. The most recent SfL data at present are for the 2003 survey; BIS has not yet published detailed results of the 2011 survey.

Basic skills matter. We all know that deficit models should be avoided – but so should complacency and smugness. Workers with poor basic skills can all too easily be overlooked or rejected by managers after one look at their written communications. And there is some evidence that poor basic skills can impede participation in further training, if only because managers may think it a waste of time to send them on a course. We cannot hide for ever behind a blanket denunciation of deficit models.

As well as sometimes needing basic skills support, many older workers lack formal qualifications. While they may have developed abundant knowledge about their role, they find it difficult to persuade managers who value formal qualifications over experience. And they are far less likely to participate in training and education than younger workers. Survey after survey has shown a steady decline of learning over the life course, with a particularly steep decline in the years approaching the state pensionable age.

In too many workplaces, managers have negative views of older workers’ trainability. The CIPD report has an excellent table listing myths and realities surrounding perceptions of skills and older workers. As Stephen McNair has shown in some of his research, low participation in training is usually the result of not being offered the opportunity; hardly anyone refuses it when given the chance.

And managers who do see training as an option probably won’t want to resource it. One survey of employer behaviour in four European countries found that while the UK had the largest share of employers who saw training as a means of retaining older workers, they were also far more likely than employers in Greece, the Netherlands or Spain to see someone else – usually the government or workers – as responsible for financing the training (Van Dalen, Hankens and Schippers 2012).

As a result, older workers may have limited exposure to and knowledge of lifelong learning. Some years ago, I was involved in some research with Barbara Merrill and Jim Gallacher on adult ‘non-learners’, who often turned out to be very effective learners in an informal way, but had a perception of colleges that was years if not decades away from the reality.

There is, then, a long way to go if we are to see older workers as a positive asset who can contribute to successful organisations as we stumble from recession into recovery. The coalition government  seems largely wedded to market solutions to most major problems, and is anyway likely to see younger jobless workers as its main skills priority in the short term. Employers will need considerable persuasion if they are to develop serious mid-term strategies for skills and learning, rather than just concentrating on immediate problems.

For anyone who wants to develop the case for investing in older workers, the CIPD report is a very helpful resource. It won’t conjure up resources out of a hat, and it cannot make up for the policy vacuum that is BIS, but it provides a powerful set of arguments which trainers, providers, trade unions and the voluntary sector can use.


CIPD, Managing a healthy ageing workforce: a national business imperative,

Van Dalen, H., Henkens, K. and Schippers, J. (2012) ‘Dealing with older workers in Europe: a comparative survey of employers’ attitudes and actions’, Journal of European Social Policy, 19 (1), 47-60

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