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Making Sense out of Hiring and Training Older Workers

By: Frank Lonergan

A paradox is present in today's employment picture. Unemployment rates among all generations are high, but employers report difficulty in finding talent. Specifically, employers say they are challenged in finding qualified workers. Organizations are reluctant to invest money in training; they’d rather hire for experience.

The unemployed older worker may be part of the solution to this paradox and a way to address employers’ hiring woes. Workers are retiring later; in some cases, to gain back the hit to investment portfolios caused by the global recession and, in other instances, as part of a general trend toward working longer to continue contributing and supplementing income. But there remains hesitancy in hiring the older worker, possibly due to still-prevalent beliefs that boil down to trying to teach "old dogs new tricks." Can hiring older workers address current—and forecasted —talent pool challenges? What are some of the benefits to hiring older workers? And, finally, what does training look like for today’s workforce, regardless of age?

The Value of Experience
Older workers are a critical piece of the puzzle to meet the need for experience in the workforce. The older worker brings several benefits to the organization, and the coming labor shortfall makes it imperative for organizations to overcome outdated concerns around hiring older workers.

We will experience a labor shortfall in the coming years. An article by Instant HR Solutions estimates that by 2016, one out of three workers will be 50 years of age or older. A labor shortage of as much as 30% by 2030 is expected as Baby Boomers continue to mature. Attracting and keeping older workers will be a key strategy as organizations look to address this labor shortfall.

What are some of the benefits of hiring older workers? Probably the biggest benefit is longevity: older workers tend to bring a more long-term view to a position and stay with an employer for a longer period of time. Younger workers typically look to accelerate career growth after a few years by moving to another company. In January 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that median employee tenure was generally higher among older workers than younger ones. Specifically, the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 (10.0 years) was more than three times that of workers ages 25 to 34 (3.1 years). In addition, the MWorld™ winter 2011–12 issue cited Mercer’s What’s Working™ research that found that “workers age 34 and younger are more likely than older colleagues …to be pondering an exit from their employer.”

Closely tied to the point regarding longevity is the differing attitudes towards work across generations. This can be summarized as the “living to work” vs “working to live” mindset. The Baby Boomer generation is often characterized as ‘living to work’ – investing much time over the years in work and its potential rewards of money and status. Post-Baby Boomer generations are believed to approach work differently; they place a higher value on flexible working arrangements, vacation time, and work hours per week.

The Journal of Management examined the work values of U.S. high school seniors in 1976, 1991, and 2006 (representing Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y), culminating in a study published in March 2010. Their data supports anecdotal notions that leisure is a particularly key work value for Gen Y relative to Gen X and Boomers, and for Gen X relative to Boomers. Findings from this study include:

  • Almost twice as many young people in 2006 rated having a job with more than 2 weeks of vacation as “very important” than did in 1976.
  • In 2006, nearly half wanted a job “which leaves a lot of time for other things in your life.” Gen Y members were less likely to want to work overtime and more likely to say they would stop working if they had enough money.
  • While only 23% of Boomers agreed that “work is just making a living,” 34% of GenY respondents agreed. Three fourths of Boomers said they expected work to be a central part of their lives, compared with 63% of Gen Y respondents.
  • Some skills are developed and nurtured mainly through experience, not education. Soft skills such as collaboration and communication are typically developed and enhanced through time on the job – not as a result of receiving a diploma. Extensive experience with face-to-face communication, in particular, is a skillset that older workers were raised with before the prevalence of email, texting, and other online communication methods. Older workers generally have both the desire and the experience to bring to bear in highly intensive customer interaction roles; they are more likely to value interaction and customer service over desire for promotion and salary increase at this stage of their career. A prime example of this niche for an older worker can be found in the hiring practices of both Home Depot and CVS. Both companies actively court older workers for customer facing roles; Home Depot going so far as to partner in the past with AARP. In addition, Home Depot illustrates the value placed on experience: maintaining a connection with former contractors and specialty tradesmen to build an inventory of expertise.
  • Older workers can more quickly step in and bring coaching and mentoring skills to an organization. So, in addition to addressing near-term staffing needs, organizations can also benefit from a demographic that can help to develop younger workers. This not only provides a transfer of skills and knowledge integral to a novice worker’s current job, it also introduces a younger worker to the process of mentoring to prepare him for this coaching role.

Training Across Generations
How can training programs support the performance and productivity of employees across generations? Keep in mind that the building blocks of a meaningful training program are consistent across age groups:

  • Alignment with organizational goal
  • Delivery that is integrated with on-the-job performance
  • Measurement of outcomes

Goals.Start all learning projects with focused organizational goals. Challenge yourself to ensure that the investment made in any training intervention—a classroom event, informal learning delivery, or training material creation—is tied to a current goal.

Delivery.Change the way you think about training from an intensive long cycle (culminating in a one-time classroom event) to shorter bite-sized learning components that drive on-the-job performance. Research indicates that learning retention after simply listening and seeing a demonstration is significantly less than after practicing and/or applying learning in a real situation. Performance support, on-the-job and integrated with task execution, should play a key role in today’s training programs.

All employees can benefit from short, readily-available learning content to execute tasks. Training at the point of need—rather than dumping all content out in a classroom before the work starts— helps to "cement" the knowledge and also combats the fact that most knowledge is lost after the classroom event occurs. The ultimate goalof performance support is to shorten time to competency in order to increase productivity. Whether the performance support intervention is the delivery of help content integrated with the software or the availability of a social media platform to connect novice-to-expert, becoming smart more quickly provides for a faster return on investment.

Measurement.How are you measuring that employees, regardless of age, have achieved mastery? By tracking error rates or help requests in software whether through technology that helps to monitor user interaction with the software or through simple polling/surveying of your help desk personnel, you can determine where employees are struggling. Problematic tasks or troublesome software applications can then be identified for additional focus and remediation. Just as importantly, technology can help report on "star"employees completing tasks most quickly and with few errors. This not only provides opportunities for recognition but also highlights the performance support activities that are working the best and lets you connect expert performers with novices.

Organizations have skilled positions to fill today. In the near future, a greater labor shortfall will occur as older generations retire. There is a real opportunity now for organizations to both fill current needs and take advantage of experienced workers to help prepare future generations.

About the Author(s)

Frank Lonergan is the CEO of ANCILE Solutions. ANCILE develops learning and performance software that empower enterprises with increased employee proficiency on mission-critical business applications. ANCILE's award-winning solutions are used by more than 50 of the Fortune 100 and are proven to help organizations maximize their software investments through smarter, more productive workforces.