Teaching old dogs new tricks?

Oct 19, 2017 | BLOG

Future of Ageing blog series

By: Astrid Davies, Astrid Davies Consulting

We all know the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. When it is applied to older people, and highly-experienced older workers in particular, however, it is both silly and insulting.

Despite this, it appears to be a leading opinion in the UK and elsewhere, suggesting that older workers need to continuously update their knowledge and skills – the onus is on them.

“Demographic change as well as changes to the state pension age will increase labour supply. Individuals will compete on the basis of their skills, and older workers will need to continue learning and updating their skills.  Employers will need to consider succession planning as people leave the labour force.” The Labour Market Story: Skills for the Future, The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 2014.

This assumes that employing organisations are ready, willing and able to invest in this “upskilling” of their older workers. This is, sadly, far from the norm, and in turn that’s simply bad business logic (there is a growing wealth of academic research to support this view).

The other school of thought, which may not be as high profile but which has some big names behind it (the International Labour Organization, for instance), is that organisations, and even countries, should step in:

“Skills development to ensure adequate skills at all levels …” Green Jobs Progress Report, ILO, 2016.

This is where it gets really interesting. Note the title: “Green Jobs Progress Report“. One of the most necessary areas of industrial growth is in sustainability and energy efficiency. The ILO has been looking at global employment, and employability, to support sustainable environments and economies, through its Green Jobs programme. In the Progress Report for 2016, it sets out an agreed set of guidelines for nations, which underline the need for a move towards sustainable economies in a way which is just, affordable and fair for all.

There are many skills which older workers can acquire ably and willingly in the very broad church that is “sustainable industries”. The trick is to ensure that these skills are passed on and that older workers receive support to acquire the skills. A supportive learning environment will ensure that new skills are embedded and the investment in training is secured. It all depends on how serious the employer is about keeping skills in their workplace and keeping hold of their investment in their people. If you don’t train and coach people, you won’t keep them and a competitor will snap them up because they are experienced, skilled and keen to learn.

There is another angle to this. Sustainable workforces will be crucial to commercial competitiveness. There are some technical skills, particularly in engineering, which are not as freely available in new apprentices and recent graduates. I have heard of older workers being re-hired, having been laid-off, because their employer had found it impossible to replace their specific technical expertise. And this is the rub – these “old tricks” are often lost from the workplace. The opportunity costs of this loss are huge: consultancy; recruitment; re-recruitment …. Happily some businesses are realising that to keep the “old tricks” in their business and keep a competitive advantage, they need to keep the “old dogs” too. Forgive the use of an adage that I have already rubbished, but you take my point.

Keeping older workers with more traditional skills within an organisation, makes knowledge transfer straightforward. Newly-qualified engineers (for instance) can learn specific techniques from more experienced colleagues, helping the business to grow. This also keeps costs lower, because it permits the repair of machinery. A very real First World problem, and one which is surprisingly easy to solve with ingenuity, commitment and experience.

Astrid Davies

Director, Astrid Davies Consulting

Astrid Davies is Director of Astrid Davies Consulting.