4/3/21 Updated from July 2016
Will the ageing of the population lead to labour and skill shortages and increasing recruitment problems? Almost everyone I spoke to in my research on workforce ageing in New Zealand agreed that it will. So, then the question arises: Is training and re-training older workers a possible solution to skill shortages?
There was overwhelming agreement with this among employers, with some qualifications about the type of work involved and the willingness of older workers to undertake training.
“It depends on individual receptiveness and willingness. Some workers don’t want to do anything different.”
Older workers may have physical limitations and cannot continue heavy work, even if training is available. Some employers thought that mental ability may also be a problem when it came to IT training, but others contested this and said that older workers only needed appropriate encouragement. Many lack higher educational attainment, making further learning – getting back to the classroom – challenging. There were also reservations about the usefulness of formal courses, suggesting that re-training on the job was preferable. Given these considerations, some employers recommended training related to motivation rather than job content alone. Older workers need the self-confidence to demonstrate their value, marketability and desire to work, perhaps in non-traditional ways.
“Older people have already got 80% through being at work and only need 20% to top up.”
As an example, a financial manager in a firm I was talking to was unwilling to go to an Institute of Management course on some new aspect of accounting. She lacked self-confidence and felt she would be seen as ignorant. In the end I said I would go with her and off we both went. It was soon clear who lacked the knowledge!
Who is responsible?
The candidates were the government, employers (sometimes through ITOs) and the workers themselves. Most respondents thought that government has a role to play, especially to provide information on needs and benefits; to identify and respond to gaps in skills; and to provide encouragement to employers to provide training. Many advocated a joint approach, suggesting:
“Tax breaks for employers, training subsidies for all workers – encourage employers to take responsibility. We need a policy and practice framework with employers involved and subsidised”.
Some respondents called for three-way responsibility between government, employers, and individual workers, sometimes bringing in unions and other stakeholders.
A lot of criticism was directed at cuts to adult and continuing education in the community, which have come back into the news recently. There was recognition that not all education and training is employment related.
“Are we meeting the needs of the mature workforce? We are hindering older workers in making choices about workforce participation.”
This was a strong vote for life-long learning and participation by older workers.
Do older workers need special conditions for training?
The answers were mixed. Some respondents said no: that age alone should not be a factor; that the most important thing was an individual approach to learning. Technology was often mentioned.
“We must be careful not to alienate older workers with too much technology.”
“Generally older people have challenges around technology. They need accommodation and longer to learn, but it is not impossible.”
This suggests a different pace for courses; more one-to-one attention; small group work; discussion; courses spread over longer periods; and case studies attuned to personal experience. The respondents who were least in favour of retraining pointed out that many aspects of their work are not changing, in content or in the culture which surrounds them, e.g. in retailing. This latter view may be changing given the strong move to on-line shopping.
Payback to employers – Will employers invest in education and training for older workers if they can’t see them staying long enough for this to benefit the business financially?
Most of the employers I interviewed did not think there was a cut-off age beyond which it would not be worthwhile to provide such opportunities. In any case, even younger workers cannot be relied on to remain in the same job for long. Instead, they said it would depend on the individual abilities of the worker and what they could contribute.
“It’s an individual thing, some are atrophied at 50; some are marvellous at 70.”
Update from the OECD
These attitudes are confirmed by an OECD report The Future of Work, 2019, which concluded –
“Strengthening adult learning is crucial to help workers successfully navigate a changing labour market. A major overhaul of adult learning programmes to increase their coverage and promote quality is essential to harness the benefits of the changing world of work.”
They note that training participation is lower among older adults than younger people and confirm the barriers they face to training participation, such as a lack of motivation, time, money or employer support. Policy options revolve around building a learning culture among firms and individuals. Training needs to be of good quality and aligned to labour market needs. This requires adequate and sustainable funding, shared by stakeholders in line with the benefits that are received.
Longer working lives resulting from increases in retirement age/pension eligibility, adopted in many OECD countries, are expected to strengthen the willingness of firms to train older workers and encourage older workers to invest in their skills development. A worthy aspiration!
 I interviewed employers and representatives of public and private sector organisations about attitudes to older workers and factors which either encourage or discourage older people from staying in paid work. This was part of a project – Making Active Ageing a Reality – undertaken through the University of Waikato, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and published in 2014. Quotes in italics come from this report.