Despite a raft of legislation introduced over the past decade to counter ageism in the workplace, there is a widely held suspicion that the practice still goes on, albeit more covertly than in the past. And when the leadership development institute, Mannaz, carried out research into the training of older workers recently, the results seemed to confirm this.
According to our survey, whilst the number of employees in large corporations taking part in formal training programmes was holding up well despite the widespread economic downturn, one group of workers seemed to be markedly under-represented. For some reason, once they had reached their mid-forties, all workers - and particularly managers and professionals - became noticeable by their absence.
But when we investigated this phenomenon more deeply we found that our initial assumption was not correct. It isn't organisations who are discouraging more mature workers from taking up training opportunities. Their absence is actually a matter of their own choice.
Although this might suggest that mature workers have given up on the idea of personal and career development, the truth is that, in many cases, the training on offer no longer serves their needs. Courses and programmes that may engage and motivate in the early part of an individual's career become increasingly irrelevant as they build up experience and expertise. The result is 'training fatigue' which cannot be overcome by any amount of cajoling or incentivising.
Instead of making use of conventional training, we find that this group tends to take a DIY approach to development. Rather than filling classrooms alongside their younger contemporaries, its members undertake their own reading, research via the internet or join physical or online networking groups to share their 'war stories'.
So if this group is actually carrying on with the development process - albeit in its own individual way - can it now be left to its own devices and resources devoted to the rest of the workforce?
Tempting though this might at first appear to any hard pushed HR director, it is an option that is fraught with potential dangers. For example, if this officer and NCO class of the corporate world is allowed to absent itself from training programmes, it automatically takes a wealth of knowledge and experience away with it, thereby reducing the value of the training for everyone else.
Furthermore, non-participation may be just the first step in a process of detachment whereby older workers become progressively less engaged with their employing organisation and stop identifying with its aims and aspirations.
Turning this around cannot be achieved by coercion. Managers and professionals as experienced as these will not take kindly to being dragooned into attending courses and will almost certainly have picked up enough excuses and evasions to get out of them even if this was attempted.
No, the key to securing their re-engagement lies elsewhere. What organisations need to do is to find ways of making the formal training system more flexible and more directly attuned to the needs of these individuals.
Our experience strongly suggests that what more mature employees want is training that can be immediately applied to the day-to-day challenges they face. Academic theory is often only of passing interest and case studies only of value if they can be made directly relevant to their own organisation, business environment and job specification.
Some of the most compelling training is therefore delivered in short bursts around that job specification so that an individual can take a lesson, apply it in practice, measure its effectiveness and then come back to shape it further in the light of this 'trial by fire'
More mature executives can also be enticed back to corporate training by giving them responsibility for their own development and progression. Naturally this can only be feasible of the employer both encourages this approach and makes it a realistic option by creating a range of training options that will fulfil each individual's needs.
At Mannaz we have recently begun a pilot of this 'flexible learning' model with a pan-European client. The first step was to work with both management and employees to establish a profile of various key roles, creating a clear picture of what an ideal HR manager, IT analyst, accountant, etc would look like. The next was to ask employees to determine where they were in terms of achieving this ideal and getting them to identify what they needed to achieve it.
This led on to setting up a 'toolbox' of development activities, mainly delivered online, such as virtual coaching, peer group networks, virtual workshops and the like. These are backed up with face-to-face peer group events where participants can benchmark their progress. The results so far, only half-way through the pilot, have been very encouraging, particularly amongst more senior participants.
Whatever approach an organisation takes to embrace its veteran employees, there is no escaping the fact that this must be done. The demographic time bomb is still ticking away in the background and there is no sign of a boost in birth rates defusing it any time soon. Any serious business must face up to the challenge of engaging effectively with its older workers or face up to unplugable gaps in its workforce in the very near future