Breaking down the age barrier

It cannot have escaped any employer’s notice that this weekend the new anti-age discrimination regulations came into force. With this change comes a number of new responsibilities for managers, one of which is to ensure that age does not become a barrier to training.

Worryingly, obstacles do exist. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Who Learns to Work?, revealed that younger workers are twice as likely to be offered specific training than older workers. And just 25% of companies surveyed said that they offered careers advice to older workers.

Keith Frost, a spokesman for Third Age Employment Network, says that employers have to take action to tackle discrimination.

“If workers over 50 continue to be denied access to training, it’s inevitable their skills will fade – and their employability will fade with it,” he says.

Sound investment

However, not all organisations are ignoring the development needs of older workers. Almost one-quarter of DIY retailer B&Q’s workers are over 50, and its employee relations and diversity manager, Tara Brady, says it has no problem justifying investment in training for older staff.

“Our oldest employee works at our Wimbledon store and he is 92. Because we have no retirement age, training has just as much value for older workers. If an employee is recruited at 60, they could work for another 20 years, so we still reap the benefits. Training acts as a great retention tool, no matter what the age of the worker,” she says.

But in certain cases, a negative mindset can create barriers to training.

“Over the years, I have seen some older workers who lack self-confidence, and this stops them pushing for promotion as they pitch themselves lower than their capability,” says Brady.

She believes the best way to overcome this frame of mind is through internal communications. “B&Q makes all communications about our internal development programme age neutral, so it includes case studies of older workers too,” she says.

“When we first launched our fast-track promotion programme, the first person to apply was a 60-year-old,” says Brady. “As a result, about 12% of our managers are now aged over 50.”

Myths abound that older workers are slower and need special measures to help them train. However, Sue Howson, head of career development at Penna, says that the opposite can be true.

“Occupational health experts acknowledge that physical deterioration such as sight, mobility and hearing does occur in older staff, but a lot of cognitive functions improve with advancing age, overlaid by the experience and expertise gathered,” she says.

At B&Q, Brady ran focus groups to see if older workers needed extra learning time to train in the company’s fast-paced retail environment. “We found that age has nothing to do with how effective people are at learning,” she says. “We often have 60-year-old employees coaching staff in their 20s about how to use a PC.”

Age stereotypes

However, stereotypes still exist that older workers are less willing to learn than their younger colleagues. A recent survey, Learn to Work, conducted among 100 HR professionals by Thales Training Consultancy, revealed that respondents believe that just 34% of over-50s show enthusiasm for training, compared to 68% of staff under 30.

Whether this is a true reflection of older workers is debatable, however, and Howson says that engaging with all staff is vital.

“Find out how they view their ongoing place in the world of work. Get employees to fill out learning style questionnaires. That way training and development can take learning styles into account and individuals can recognise how they best learn,” she says.

Frost agrees that asking workers about their needs is a positive step. “There is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution,” he says. “Some are happy to participate in distance learning or e-learning, whereas others prefer the discipline of working in classes with tutors. If training can be presented in a non-threatening, low-risk environment, older workers can be enticed back into training.”

Howson also suggests career development workshops. “This can help older workers refresh their careers and avoid boredom, burnout and disconnection. Strategies to discuss include career change, secondments, time-limited projects, mentoring inexperienced staff and fresh training,” she says.

Providing access to learning and development opportunities for older staff is not just about staying on the right side of new age discrimination laws. If training opportunities for older workers are limited, employers could end up with a workforce that fails to reach its full ability, while staff could increasingly become disaffected and fail to achieve the career progression they deserve.

Making training inclusive


  • Ask older workers about their development needs.

  • Make communications on development opportunities ‘age neutral’.

  • Get employees to complete learning styles questionnaires.

  • Give older staff access to career development workshops.


  • Rule out training opportunities just because staff are nearing retirement.

  • Assume older workers are uninterested in career development.

  • Take a one-size-fits-all approach – different training methods should be provided.

  • Forget to evaluate feedback from training and development programmes.

In Training & Coaching Today this month:

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