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Promoting Lifelong Employability

Australian and Singaporean case study, May 2011

Deloitte, Diversity, Global researchA robust, older workforce is central to the modern economic goals of both developed and developing countries. Despite the importance of older workers, there are perceptions that they are unable to adapt to changing workplace processes and are disinterested in gaining new skills for advancement.

Research conducted by Professor Stephen Billet from Griffith State University and the Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore, explores the mind-set of older workers (aged 45 and above). Billet discusses how dynamic tasks and the alignment of capabilities are key to a sustainable older workforce. Billet argues the need for corporations and governments to acknowledge differences in learning styles and to overcome misconceptions. This will allow older workers can gain access to opportunities to develop and stimulate their skills, and in turn maintain their employability for longer.

This study is critical in breaking down the stereotypes facing mature workers as it highlights that:

  • Contrary to belief, older worker are eager, enthusiastic and responsive to learning opportunities in reaction to shifts in their role responsibilities
  • Older workers express a willingness to continually improve and hold themselves accountable for learning.

In addition the study revealed that:

  • In contrast to younger workers, older workers gained their initial skill development from practical on-the-job activities
  • Older workers whose initial educational experiences did not reflect current work practices felt reduced confidence
  • A lack of familiarly with current training platforms leads some older works to feel anxious and sceptical before attending training.

Aim

The research investigated older workers’ attitudes to their working conditions, the availability of opportunities and the constraints that hinder their long-term employability in fast-moving work environments.

Method

The researcher conducted 42 face-to-face interviews (45 minutes duration) with Singaporean workers aged between 40 and 70. Participant diversity was proportionate to Singapore’s racial breakdown and the interviewed participants worked across a range of occupations, levels of occupation and industries

Participants were asked questions relating to:

  1. Their work and work history
  2. Their perceptions of ‘older workers’
  3. Their experiences with opportunities for advancement (further training, securing employment and maintaining workplace competence)
  4. Support they have received from organisations or educational institutions
  5. Appropriate roles for older workers.

The transcripts were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively. Information on their training sources and modes of learning was tabulated to present a view on trends in their demographic. Illustrative quotes were extracted to identify the workers’ key drivers that have led to their decisions. Commonalities were examined across the sample in order to understand older workers’ values and attitudes in how they perceive themselves and how they approach workplace change.

Findings

New Learning

The research demonstrated that older workers learn best when engaged in challenging work-related tasks and activities.

  • Active learners
    A common clativeim is that older workers are resistant when faced with skill development or change. However, the study showed that participants were active, enthusiastic and responsive to learning opportunities. Following changes in the requirements to their roles (primarily from technology changing processes), participants were eager to take up new learning opportunities so they could continue to perform in their jobs.
  • Learning best on-the-job
    The research showed that younger workers today gain their initial skill development from learning institutions. Conversely, the research identified that the majority of older workers gained their initial skill development from practical on-the-job activities. This affects on-going development as older workers predominantly continue to develop their skills through on-the-job activities and rarely through vocational training from educational institutions.

Capability

The research demonstrated that the participants’ values and attitudes are central to how they perform in their work and make decisions.

  • Older workers are self-determined
    Older workers expressed a willingness to continually improve. They were self-determined, holding themselves responsible for learning, as opposed to the government or company. They associated working with a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, with one participant explicitly opposing the traditional view that older people should be respected for their age without needing to prove themselves.
  • Interest can be affected by low confidence
    Workers whose initial educational experiences did not reflect current work practices felt reduced confidence. This reduction in confidence lead to apprehension to aspire for a superior role or to approach tasks to the best of their ability.
  • Uncomfortable with formal training
    One participant described anxiety before taking a vocational course from an institution. The participant would have appreciated more comprehensive information on the expectations of the course. A lack of familiarly with a training platform suggested that additional management is important to ensure older workers are prepared.

Almost without exception, the participants highlighted the importance of an “open, supportive and collaborative” workplace in order for learning to take place.

Implications

The research reveals that it is commonplace for older workers to learn on- the-job and training methods should ideally be incorporated into day-to-day work practices. Engaging platforms that do not place the workers in a rigid hierarchy are recommended. These include:

Knowledge Sharing
The chance to share knowledge and past examples allows older workers to tap into their advanced repertoire of experiences within a relevant project or context. This can be facilitated formally or informally within a meeting or conversation.

Dialogue
When dealing with training, the research states that older workers did not feel comfortable in a ‘student’ role. Older workers are more open to discussing their work approaches in the frame of a conversation where questions and comments are encouraged.

Shadowing
Older workers should allow others to observe or complete designated parts of a specific task, while the older worker describes their actions or actively responds to questions. This method provides older workers with the ability to set direction as they learn through the mentoring role.

These educational approaches allow older workers to advance their skills and build their knowledge as they impart and address their status as experienced workers. It is interesting to note that these are all social methods of learning, which the research emphasised is key for older workers.

While additional government assistance to tailored training and opportunities would be ideal, the researcher notes that change can take place through an awareness of differences and an adjustment of existing approaches. Policies and practices can be redesigned for the needs of experienced older workers to further develop their skills. Change and forward momentum can empower older workers to excel, which in turn improves business performance and societal attitudes.

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