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Older workers - why businesses need to rethink their policies

Leicester researcher warns that with the prospect of an older workforce, businesses need to provide more training for older workers

Issued on 10 March 2009

Research carried out by the University of Leicester for the Learning and Skills Council East Midlands (LSCEM) has produced a stark warning about the lack of training and learning opportunities for older workers.

The findings also show the lack of preparedness that the region and society as a whole have towards the ageing of our workforce and of society more generally. Yet the ageing workforce is one of the more valuable assets a business can have.

‘Older Workers – Older Learners’, the research project led by Dr Vanessa Beck of the University’s Centre for Labour Market Studies, investigated the relationship between older workers’ involvement in learning and their participation in the labour market.

The research focus was on employers’ use of learning and training opportunities for older workers, their perceptions of an ageing workforce and what benefits such training could bring the organisation as a whole.

People are living longer and this means that they will need to carry on working for longer. Society as a whole needs to rethink the retirement process, and employers need to reconsider how older workers can be better integrated into the workforce.

The East Midlands economy has developed considerably over the past few years and the construction, engineering, health, logistics and retail sectors studied by the ‘Older Workers – Older Learners’ project are a crucial part of that economy.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Beck said: “The extent to which there is a lack of preparedness and the extent to which learning and training opportunities are taken up is disappointing. In contrast, however, it was surprising to see that on an individual and organisational level, there are a whole host of practices in place that can benefit older workers as well as the organisations that employ them.

“To address many of the problems that might emerge as a result of the changing demographics of our workforce, it is therefore not necessary to implement fundamentally new policies or radical changes but to consider the practices in place and tailor them to the specific needs of the individual and the organisation.

“The East Midlands used to be a very proactive region with regards to older workers and I hope that this research (together with other work done for emda last year) will highlight the importance of being realistic with regards to the ageing of the workforce.

“In many of the companies that I spoke to it was clear that whilst they knew about general developments, they had not considered the implications for their workplace. I hope, therefore, that the interviews I had with them stimulated new thoughts, concerns and opportunities with regards to the older workers that the organisations employ.

“Ideally this could lead to more pro-active and positive engagement and communication between employers and older workers to ensure both parties’ needs are met.”

Practices and policies already in place that could, in some form, benefit older workers include flexible working; Apprenticeships enabling them to move into different areas of work; structured learning and training supported by the Train to Gain service, Skills Pledge, Skills Accounts, and Foundation Degrees accrediting expertise older learners already have; reward systems; and positive age awareness management.

Older workers are valued for their experience and expertise, knowledge which can be passed on to younger colleagues either formally through apprenticeship assessment or informally as mentors in the workplace.

However, there is a real issue as to how the economic downturn will affect older workers. During the course of the research, companies were already laying off workers (including older people) and this could have a negative long-term effect.

Older workers who are made redundant are less likely to find re-employment and more likely to receive illness-related benefits or go into early retirement. This would mean that they (including their skills and experience) would be lost to the economy. Employers indicated that they lose crucial skills due to such redundancies.

If and when the economy picks up again, the pool of available labour will have shrunk further because older workers are unlikely to return to work out of retirement, the research warns.

Notes to Editors: For more information on this please contact Dr Vanessa Beck, Centre for Labour Market Studies, University of Leicester, tel 0116 252 5991, email Vanessa.Beck@le.ac.uk

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