Why train older workers?


A recent quote from Forbes Magazine –

It’s nuts, but employee training programs tend to ignore older workers. This is bad for business, bad for workers in their 50s and 60s and bad for the (U.S.) economy.

I know I have been writing a lot about workforce ageing and older workers, but I happen to think these are really important issues for the future. I am not alone. The Careers NZ website points out that mature workers – those aged 55 and over – are expected to play an increasingly key role in the economy as the number of young people entering the workforce falls. If current trends continue there will soon be more people leaving the workforce than entering it, leading to labour and skills shortages. Careers NZ concludes – “

 As New Zealand’s population ages and the number of young workers entering the labour market declines, mature workers are increasingly crucial to filling jobs in areas of skill shortage.[1]

And if we are to keep up productivity and encourage economic growth then older workers have to be helped to keep up their skills.

Barriers to retraining

There are plenty of myths and stereotypes about the abilities of older workers that create significant barriers when they seek participation in the workforce and obstruct their access to education and training. These suggest that older workers –


  • lack innovation and creativity;
  • cannot learn and adapt to new technology;
  • are prone to absenteeism because of failing health;
  • will not stay as long as younger people; and
  • are not willing or interested in retraining.


All of these can be refuted. The majority of older employees have long and stable periods of employment. If they are more likely to remain loyal to an employer, this should enhance the return on training investment. But if older workers have limited or no access to training then their skills will certainly become obsolete. A vicious circle develops – outdated skills reinforce stereotypes about older workers which gives them low priority for retraining and hence their disadvantage is reinforced. Research shows that many employers, in New Zealand and internationally, see training for older workers as a risk and a poor investment

They told me I wasn’t qualified enough, but then promoted someone younger with no qualification or experience and paid for her training (quote from an older worker in Equal Opportunities Trust research).

Thus, employers who ignore the training needs of older workers contribute to the under-performance and de-motivation which they complain of. They also deprive themselves of reliable and committed human resources, which could be working productively, and which may well stay longer than the younger workers who are targeted for training.


I came across another quote from the Australian politician, Hon. Bronwyn Bishop –

The creation of opportunities for mature age workers to undertake retraining and the breaking down of barriers to access retraining are critical issues. The establishment of a culture of continuous learning and re-skilling is essential to maximize the contribution of mature age workers to economic growth (cited in, Access Economics 2001:xv).

In New Zealand there are few opportunities for older workers to retrain and upskill unless their employers see the benefits. The findings here are mixed. In my own work I have come across many open-minded and far-sighted employers (but perhaps these were the ones which were willing for me to interview them!). But other research has shown that very many employers are not prepared for workforce ageing.

Some positive notes

The World Economic Forum has recently published a report – Towards a Reskilling Revolution: A Future of Jobs for All. This does not explicitly focus on ageing or older workers, but it outlines a process help individual workers, companies, and governments to prioritize their actions and investments in the training area. It introduces a new approach to identifying reskilling and job transition opportunities. It concludes that these efforts will not be easy; individuals will need to be supported and incentivised and will need to recognise the benefits of continuous reskilling in the form of rewarding job transition pathways. To prepare for change of the labour market, a wide range of stakeholders— governments, employers, individuals, educational institutions and labour unions, among others—will need to come together, collaborate and pool their resources.

And a headline from early May –

Fonterra, Air NZ and Bunnings are among those promising to double staff training spending – Some of New Zealand’s biggest companies have promised to double the amount of time and money they spend on re-skilling and training by 2025.

This comes from The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council and Jacinda Ardern has tasked the State Services Commission to look into which Government departments can do the same. The Prime Minister is quoted as saying –

A key pillar of this Coalition Government’s economic plan is to reform skills and trade training to address long-term labour shortages and productivity gaps in the economy, to make sure we are prepared for ongoing automation and the future of work.

Let’s hope that older workers are given due attention in these initiatives.


[1] https://www.careers.govt.nz/job-hunting/whats-happening-in-the-job-market/mature-workers-in-the-labour-market/


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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