Raising the grey ceiling

Gradually, the average age of the UK’s labour force has been increasing, with more employees opting to extend their working lives. In light of this trend, which has now been recognised with a change in employment legislation, should employers be doing more to realise the full potential of their mature employees?

Since April 2011, most employers can no longer impose a compulsory retirement age of 65, allowing older employees to remain in work for longer should they choose to. Mature and experienced employees have a great deal to offer the workplace. However, recognising that the training needs and motivations of older employees may differ from other sections of the workforce is crucial to unlocking latent talent.

Older and wiser

For those sectors facing skilled labour shortages, brought about by the generation of baby boomers who took early retirement and a shortage of skilled graduates to replace them, the new legislation is well timed.

The ability to extend the careers of knowledgeable and experienced workers is likely to be helpful to many companies explains Simon Brandwood, Head of Careers and Employment Services at the University of Wolverhampton:

"The change in legislation removing the compulsory retirement age gives industry the opportunity to retain years of experience and skills. Knowledge, especially industry specific knowledge, is a key competitive advantage that until recently left the company with the employee reaching the age of 65."

Refreshing skills

Whilst the retention of high levels of work experience is good for productivity, the skills of older workers are more likely to date back to knowledge they acquired before entry to the labour market, or in the early stages of their careers. Reliance on outdated skills could impact upon innovation and productivity, so employers need to consider ways of maintaining the relevance of the skills of older workers.

As the average age of employees rises, the mature workforce more than ever will be called upon to meet new and emerging skill needs, and therefore the development and advancement of employees who are nearing or beyond normal retirement age should not be neglected. For Simon Brandwood, meeting the training and education needs of knowledgeable and skilled professionals is crucial:

"Skill shortages are ever apparent, especially in engineering. The removal of a compulsory retirement age allows companies to invest in their employees, meaning the development of the individual and company alike."

Teaching an old dog new tricks

In the past, training for employees nearing retirement may have represented a poorer return on training investment for employers. Likewise, for older employees the incentives to train in terms of higher wages or improved job opportunities decrease as the period in which they can realise these benefits becomes shorter. Now that working lives are extending, there is greater impetus on employer and employee to ensure that the employability and progression of older workers is maintained through relevant training and education.

The shift in the age structure of the workforce is an opportunity for employers to review their current training practices to ensure that the skills of older workers are kept up-to-date, enabling both employer to and employee to benefit. For instance, employers may need to look at ways of making training and its mode of delivery more attractive to their older employees.

The University of Wolverhampton works with employers to develop suitable training provision. Flexibility is crucial, says Simon Brandwood:

"Providing modes of delivery which minimise disruption to work routines such as on-the-job training, short courses or modular courses has become increasingly important. The costs attached to these are also likely to be recovered more quickly by employers and employees."

Passing on the knowledge

Employers should recognise that the career motivations of older employees may have changed over time. Workers at the latter stages of their working lives may be less career driven, and possibly seek roles with reduced levels of stress and responsibility. Utilising the substantial skills these employees can bring to your business in ‘softer roles’ makes good sense.

Mature employees are particularly well suited to mentoring or coaching roles, both formal and informal. Older workers have a great deal to offer organisations in terms of the knowledge and experience they can pass to younger employees. These contributions can add value to business performance and ideally should be supported with relevant training and development to help them perform these roles effectively.

The ageing of the labour force has proved to be more than a passing phenomenon; it’s a business reality. Employers would be wise to adapt their practices in order to get the most from their mature workforce. Those who do so, are likely to realise the greatest benefits for their business.