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5 Tips to Follow to Upskill Midcareer Workers

Ensuring that all employees receive professional development opportunities can benefit your business

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The COVID-19 global health crisis has upended the way we live, work and learn, and has accelerated trends relating to the future of work by creating an increased rationale for automation. At the same time, the demand for skilled workers is providing the workforce with leverage to seek jobs with the flexibility and growth opportunities they desire. All these trends call for a renewed commitment from business leaders to support upskilling and reskilling opportunities within their existing workforce.  The good news is that upskilling and reskilling programs not only foster an agile, adaptable business environment, but also save organizations thousands of dollars in recruiting and onboarding costs each year.

While the shift toward greater automation requires employees with cutting edge technology skills, another skill segment that is growing in demand emphasizes soft skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, relationship building, empathy, coaching and mentoring. These uniquely human capabilities take time to develop and are present in much of the 50-plus segment of the workforce. Due to the high correlation between older workers and soft skills, it’s sensible to build a multigenerational workforce with a culture that facilitates intergenerational learning, knowledge sharing, and mentoring.

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While providing training to the younger segments of the workforce seems like a no-brainer, midcareer and late-career workers also can prove to be a huge boon to organizations that invest in reskilling and redeploying them based on the wealth of soft skills and institutional knowledge they bring to the table. Given the potential for conversations around upskilling to be perceived as a veiled attempt to sideline or push out experienced workers — particularly if the roles they occupy are becoming obsolete — it’s important to develop an approach that sets the right tone and conveys the information in a nonthreatening way.  

Here are five principles to follow when discussing upskilling opportunities with midcareer and late-career workers:

  1. Be respectful. Start by recognizing the skills, experience and institutional knowledge that many older workers already have. The ability to make sound decisions, think critically and remember how and why things used to be done a certain way are actually helpful in crafting new approaches. Position reskilling and upskilling as chances to add, rather than subtract, skills.
  2. Be collaborative. Ask midcareer and late-career workers if they are interested in developing any of the new skills the organization most needs. Do they want to move into an adjacent area, or one that is completely different? How much of their existing duties do they want to keep, and what emerging capabilities or roles do they want to grow into? Though you may not always be able to craft the exact career path that every employee wants, approaching the conversation as a process of cocreation helps achieve buy-in, enthusiasm and engagement.
  3. Be transparent. Be straightforward and up-front with the reasons you are offering these opportunities to reskill. If some or all of the employee’s job tasks are being automated or are simply no longer needed, tell them this and explain that while the tasks or roles are going away, you want to keep them as valuable workers. Or, if you’ve targeted certain employees for their transferrable skills and want to utilize them in new ways, say that, too. Answer their questions with as much information as you can.
  4. Be supportive. Many midcareer workers are in the busiest life stage in terms of caring for children and elders, managing teams and juggling multiple work priorities. Acknowledge these responsibilities. Practice empathetic leadership, and provide the flexibility busy employees need to take on the task of learning new skills. Can you reassign or lower the priority of some of their current projects? Can you temporarily move them to a different role within the team? Challenge them to take advantage of these opportunities and ask what you can do to give them the greatest chance of success.
  5. Don’t assume. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many stereotypes about older workers persist, so it’s important to check your own potential for bias before starting a conversation. Research shows that productivity, engagement and motivation increase with age, as does older workers’ interest in learning new skills. Lead with questions and stay open to what employees say they want or are interested in. Steering them away from the opportunity to join a coding bootcamp, for example, reveals a hidden bias.

The business case for upskilling and reskilling your existing workforce across the age spectrum has never been stronger. The ripple effect in closing your organization’s skills gap empowers your workforce, ensures business continuity, saves your organization on capital costs and meets the evolving needs of your customers. Communicating reskilling and upskilling opportunities to your existing employees with respect, collaboration and transparency will help pave the way for success.

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Case Study: Verizon

When COVID-19 first emerged, many organizations felt forced to close their doors and pause all but the most basic operations. Facing a global health crisis seemed to obviate the need to think about anything as superfluous as training. But not all organizations took this approach. In fact, Verizon doubled down on training as a way to avoid deep workforce cuts.

Rather than laying off huge sections of the workforce and hiring a large volume of new talent, Verizon successfully reskilled 7,000 retail employees into remote customer service roles for the first six months of the pandemic. The adaptability of both Verizon’s business leaders and workforce translated into a more efficient onboarding process, condensing training from the traditional five weeks to two weeks, which saved thousands of jobs and thousands of dollars in productivity costs. And the effects continued beyond the first six months. Verizon’s learning and development team stayed in touch with all reskilled employees, allowing them the choice to remain in their new roles or return to their old ones as retail locations began to slowly open back up.

Some business leaders are cautious about investing in training programs for employees, only to have those employees leave the organization within months. Adriana Lange, director of Learning and Development for Verizon, counters with the question “what happens if you do not invest in employees and they stay with your organization?” Indeed, many organizations report stronger employee retention and brand loyalty because of the educational opportunities offered.

Heather Tinsley-Fix is a senior advisor at AARP, where she leads the organization's work on employer engagement and helps drive AARP's focus on providing workers 50+ with the tools they need to thrive in today's work environment.

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