Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of buzz about new generations entering the workforce—and for good reason. Millennials, after all, have turned work life on its head with new concepts like open office designs, a heightened focus on emotional intelligence and a push for tech-driven workplaces and remote work. Meanwhile, the oldest members of Gen Z are just beginning to enter the workforce, bringing with them a wealth of technical skills and a willingness to solve problems through effective communication.
But with all the talk about how we can appeal to these new generations, it’s easy to forget that organizations must also empower older employees to gain new skills so that they, too, can succeed at work. According to Cornerstone’s report, Building an Adaptive Workforce: The Demand for Transparency and Skills Development, 60% of baby boomers feel they lack the skills necessary to withstand a future layoff, compared to 49% of millennials.
The report, which is based on a survey of 1,000 people in the U.S. who have recently been laid off from their jobs, found that the key to a productive, multigenerational workforce is to provide learning and development programs that seek to understand and cater to the learning needs of all employees, whether they are members of Gen X, Y or Z—or not.
Addressing the Generational Skills Gap
It’s no coincidence that older workers, on average, feel less confident in their skill set than their younger counterparts. A report issued by the Department of Labor Taskforce on the Aging of the American Workforce found that workers between the ages of 25 and 34 receive an average of 37 hours of training per year, while those over the age of 55 receive only nine.
Why this gap? A number of organizations do not invest in learning and development programs for older workers because they believe they will retire soon. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: Pew Research Center reported that baby boomers are actually delaying retirement at the highest annual rate in half a century. Yet according to Cornerstone’s research, 73% of boomers say their employers don’t help them identify the skills they need or support their desires to move jobs internally.
Rest assured, older workers want to sharpen their existing skills just as much as younger generations. In fact, developing different types of skills is more important to boomers than it is to millennials. Sixty percent of boomers see skills diversification—the ability to complete tasks and develop expertise beyond what your current job requires—as a key to job satisfaction, compared to 39% of millennials.
While it’s important for employees to learn skills specific to their roles, there’s also a case to be made for a core curriculum of sorts, where professionals of all ages can gain more general skills around emotional intelligence, technology and overall communication.
Improving Growth Opportunities Through L&D
To make general education possible for employees of all ages, organizations must build a learning and development strategy that is consistent throughout the company. While it’s up to leaders to develop lessons and curricula around the skills they want employees to have, workers—regardless of age or title—should also be encouraged and empowered to share their learning and development goals with their managers. After all, learning is not a one way street.
"Companies should absolutely play a role in supplying learning and development programs for their employees, but the responsibility of continued learning falls on the employee, too," says Jeff Miller, AVP of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone. "To stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive, employees have to consistently develop their skills."
Several companies have already recognized the need to retrain older, more tenured employees.
Global telecommunications company AT&T, for example, recently kicked off a company-wide initiative to retrain its 250,000-person workforce. With an average tenure of 12 years, more than half of the company’s employees lacked the necessary STEM skills required to do their jobs effectively.
AT&T’s training program specifically targeted employees who did not have the technical skills necessary for an automated future and provided them with an opportunity to gain skills that would set them up for salary increases and promotions. This was especially true for older employees, many of whom were trained before some of these technologies even existed. AT&T’s retraining initiative also paid off in ROI—it’s less expensive and more productive to reskill workers than constantly have to fill positions due to turnover.
As companies develop their own upskilling and re-skilling initiatives, they should also consider implementing more transparent communication with regard to skills development and promotion opportunities to give all workers an equal opportunity to grow and thrive. Online learning and performance management tools provide insight into available jobs within a company and lay out the skills required to excel in each role. Employees can then work alongside their managers to create a roadmap aligning their learning and development with future opportunities within the company.
There’s always some uncertainty when it comes to predicting the future of work. But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that our multigenerational workforce is looking to improve their skills through corporate development programs—and it’s up to HR to deliver on that promise.
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