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Stamping out ageism in the workplace through training


These days, age seems to be the enemy. Whereas in generations gone by, having decades of professional expertise under your belt was synonymous with wisdom, highly developed skills and an ability to cope in any given situation, in the last decade perceptions have altered and ageism is now a commonplace problem.

Karina Ward of NETg looks at how businesses who implement a lifelong learning culture are able to make ageism itself redundant. By knowing what skills will be needed tomorrow, businesses ensure staff are receiving the right training today.

The increasing trend towards longevity coupled with a lower birth rate all conspire to create an increasingly older population of working professionals with fewer young workers coming through the ranks to replace them. In fact, the Office of National Statistics predicts that by 2005, 35% of the workforce will be over 45. Unfortunately, the experience of many older workers is that their age counts against them and all too often it is associated with having out-of-date skills.

The age at which people are considered ‘past it’ professionally is falling dramatically. Staff as young as 34 are being confronted with ageism at work according to a recent survey, which found that 79% of employees between 34 and 67 had been victims of age discrimination (Maturity Works, 2003). This means that many employers consider a huge number of staff currently in employment as ‘old’. To disregard such a large proportion of the workforce just doesn’t make business sense. Not only does this section of the population represent a huge part of the UK’s workforce but older workers can also bring years of valuable wisdom, skills and experience to a company.

So what impact does an ageing population have on your training department? With age discrimination legislation expected in 2006, it will soon be unlawful to discriminate against individuals on the basis of age in employment. This includes issues such as promotion, recruitment, training, pay etc. Businesses will have to review their policy across all these areas and the impact on training programmes will therefore be significant. Questions to be addressed will include whether training is suitable for the older generation, whether staff who have taken an extended break (mothers for example) should be offered refresher courses in key IT and business skills, or whether all staff should have access to graduate/fast-track training programmes regardless of age.

Lifelong Learning

Growing older certainly shouldn’t mean the end of the learning process - learning should be a lifelong activity. Whether you’re 21 or 71, a secretary or a CEO, learning should form a key part of working life, helping staff to develop vital IT, business and professional skills required in the workplace today, increasing motivation and happiness levels. The adoption of a true learning culture – that is, the promotion of lifelong learning – by companies ensures that learning becomes a constant process, not one that is implemented when a skills gap becomes evident. Learning therefore becomes all-embracing: issues such as age, job-role and differing individual ability are irrelevant as each individual is equally encouraged to engage and collaborate in training. The benefits of lifelong learning will be clearly evident, both in terms of increased individual motivation and company loyalty, but also in terms of higher business productivity.

Technology training

Training in IT skills is particularly important for older staff in order that the whole breadth of their capabilities is allowed to shine through and contribute to the business. It is said that older age groups tend to be less technology savvy, not having been surrounded by it from an early age like many of the younger workers currently entering the workplace. But this type of ageist stereotyping can be stopped from turning to fact if companies invest in the relevant training. A learning culture of continuous learning and upskilling would ensure that skills gaps do not appear in the first place, and that all staff – regardless of age – are kept up-to-date on all key skills as they progress through their career. With the proposed Government Skills whitepaper aiming to expand the basic skills set to make ICT the third essential skill for life (alongside numeracy and literacy), ignoring employee skills gaps in this area will no longer be feasible in the future.

The blended approach

Older workers may have different learning requirements and learning styles, which means training must therefore be carefully tailored, not just to the business’ requirements, but also to each unique individual learner. A blended learning approach, which incorporates a range of instruction, from e-Learning and e-Books to instructor-led training materials and classroom-based learning, has been shown to significantly enhance learning retention and improve workplace performance. And for older workers it provides them with the option to mix and match the most effective learning programme for them, with a heavier focus on classroom based learning rather than e-Learning perhaps. By incorporating blended learning into the company learning culture, businesses can ensure that the learning needs and styles of every employee, no matter what age, are met and strong results are guaranteed.

A well-trained, mixed-age workforce is one which will allow a company to reach its true business potential. Providing employees of all ages with high quality, targeted training can result in increased productivity, make the company more attractive to investors, boost staff morale and motivation and increase staff retention. Tailoring training to each person’s needs, offering an integrated blended learning solution, and ensuring that a real learning culture is developed will help ensure that ageism in the workplace becomes obsolete. With so much at stake, this is not an option but a business necessity.


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