En español | Employer attitudes toward providing training to their employees have shifted over the past 20 years. In the first decade of this century, employer spending on training decreased by 28 percent, but as skill needs began to change more rapidly, the need to provide training to help employees bridge their skills gaps became more and more apparent. In 2020, LinkedIn reported that “38 percent of executives with enterprises of 5,000 employees or more [believe] that closing skills gaps is an urgent business priority.”
And this trend shows no sign of stopping. The World Economic Forum's “Future Jobs 2020” report estimated that in less than five years, “85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge.” As a result, 40 percent of workers will need to learn new skills. That level of displacement creates a business imperative for employers to provide “upskilling” and “reskilling” opportunities to their current employees rather than expecting to satisfy all their skill needs via new hires.
With as many as five generations in the workforce, age-inclusive learning and development approaches are a must. Traditionally the youngest and oldest workers have been the least likely to receive training from their employers, while workers toward the middle of the age range receive substantially more opportunities. But the pace of change and the need for skilled workers is pushing organizations to realize that all employees, regardless of age, need access to training.
Here are 6 ways to approach skills training with an age-inclusive lens.
1. Adopt a growth mindset.
To effectively foster an attitude that promotes employee growth requires intention and sponsorship from executives. Start by shifting internal opinions and assumptions away from the idea that people's abilities are fixed and finite and instead move toward the idea that everyone can grow and learn new skills.
This shift can be supported by a number of actions. First, acknowledge learning as a valuable activity in and of itself. It can come in a variety of ways — formal training, on-the-job training, ideation and innovation sessions, job swapping, group problem-solving, and individual creativity. Second, support and promote learning activities across the organization by providing training options, giving managers incentives to encourage learning opportunities among their staffs, and rewarding/recognizing employees who develop new skills or try new approaches. Third, establish an environment that nurtures those who suggest new ideas and take risks. Remove punitive measures that often are attached to failed ideas and projects. Instead, acknowledge the courage that it sometimes takes to be willing to fail in order to achieve success.
2. Promote upskilling and reskilling across all age groups.
Avoid making decisions about training and career advancement opportunities based on stereotypes about an employee's age. Life stage is a better indicator of the types of opportunities that may be of interest to an individual. Don't assume older workers aren't interested in learning emerging skills or that younger workers aren't interested in leadership and management courses. When communicating training opportunities to a group or the entire workforce, disseminate information equally and simultaneously. Remove any language from communications that hints at ageist stereotypes or assumptions of who would be most interested in training.
3. Provide training in a variety of formats.
There are many different learning styles, yet it's common that only visual and verbal techniques are provided in training. Try to offer a variety of learning opportunities for the same material. For example, self-paced and online learning might be helpful to an employee juggling caregiving responsibilities for both young children and aging parents. In-person learning may be effective to social learners who benefit from direct support from trainers and opportunity to engage with face-to-face questions. Offering the curriculum in printed materials, in addition to online content, can benefit solitary or visual learners who do best when they can diagram or jot down notes. Additionally, consider no- or low-cost ways to provide opportunities for employees to grow, such as job-swapping and temporary assignments.
4. Accept different learning styles.
Be mindful that there isn't one particular learning style that best results in the mastery of new skills or retention of knowledge. While it is tempting to equate speed with intelligence and ability, speedy course completion may not automatically result in improved skillsets. Some older workers may initially appear to be slower in their learning curve relative to younger workers, but the older group's ability to contextualize new information based on decades of experience might also improve retention and thoroughness of comprehension. On the flip side, younger counterparts may absorb information more quickly and swiftly master short-term tasks, making them excellent helpers for those requiring additional assistance. The cross-pollination of several generations in the workforce may allow those with different learning styles to exchange information and strengthen development of the overall group.
5. Leverage age diversity for informal soft skills training.
Soft skills such as leadership, communication and critical thinking are most effectively learned over time, through work and life experiences. For this reason, younger workers can benefit from their older colleagues’ knowledge of those non-automatable, uniquely human skill sets that can difficult to identify and predict when hiring. A buddy system or mentoring program where younger and older employees can work together to solve current problems hands-on can offer an accelerated form of training and a valuable addition to structured professional development courses. Additionally, older workers can learn just as much from their younger counterparts, so frame mentoring opportunities as a two-way exchange of skills and knowledge.
6. Partner with external organizations.
As employers lay the groundwork for age-inclusive training programs, they may discover they don't have the funding to support a full-fledged internal professional development program. One affordable alternative can be to start with a tuition reimbursement program for employees. Leverage internal communication channels such as an intranet or internal newsletter to publicize the reimbursement program and communicate the intent to close the skills gap. As its use grows among employees, your company eventually may find it more cost-effective to provide more in-house training programs.
Or you may want to work more closely with local educational institutions to provide highly tailored offerings. Community colleges and university partnerships can be excellent resources and are increasingly open to tailoring training programs specific to the needs of your industry, business challenges and employee skill gaps. Working collaboratively with these institutions on selecting course materials, instructors or specific equipment or working environments can help ensure employees are getting the training needed for future growth, both theirs and yours.
These case studies offer practical examples of how to create age-inclusive training programs.
- Structure of training: Occurs during the regular workday
- Company: Kuwait National Petroleum Co. (KNPC)
- Industry: Oil refining
- Workforce: Large (500+ employees)
Kuwait National Petroleum Co. used structured on-the-job training for newly hired engineers, who typically arrived with a general understanding of engineering theory and principles but lacked knowledge of their application to oil refining.
This program differed from most types of structured on-the-job training in that it focused on all the tasks performed in a particular position (for example, refinery engineer) rather than the general tasks performed by engineers across the industry. With the input of subject-matter experts, a consultant and KNPC human resources, staff produced modules detailing the tasks involved in each process. Established employees acted as mentors and monitors who trained new employees, reducing overall learning time from 53 to 36 months.
Job transfers and rotations
- Structure of training: Employees periodically try different roles within the company
- Company: Marriott International
- Industry: Hospitality
- Workforce: Large (500+ employees)
Marriott, with a rapidly aging workforce, combined training and development opportunities, workplace flexibility, and health and wellness management for its hourly workers. Notably, the company started with cross-training sessions to help workers develop new skills that could help them manage the physically demanding aspects of various jobs, then instituted job rotations once workers had been trained for several positions. For example, a laundry worker (very physically demanding) might rotate into the lobby attendant position (less physically demanding) two days a week. Additionally, this allowed greater flexibility when a worker needed time off, because more workers were able to perform the tasks.
Coaching and mentoring
- Structure of training: Training occurs by participation in coaching and mentoring teams
- Company: The Hartford
- Industry: Financial services
- Workforce: Large (500+ employees)
The Hartford brought together meaningful work and training opportunities through its reverse-mentoring program. The younger mentors were early-career employees with technical skills, while the older mentors were leaders in the organization. The Hartford used a variety of internal resources to spread the word about reverse mentoring, such as internal social media and other internal websites.
For more information on age-inclusivity for employers, visit aarp.org/employers.
Ashley Powdar is employer content lead for AARP's Financial Resilience team. She works with participants in the organization's Employer Pledge Program to promote the value of a multigenerational workforce. She also assists and reports on issues that affect small business owners.