A wealth of knowledge walking out the door

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 17:19

Guest post by Ruth Williams

The mature age workforce has ‘been around the block’. Most have gained a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills along the way. Many will tell you that life experience is invaluable and older workers are often more equipped to apply a level of wisdom to each task, project and objective within the workplace compared with their younger colleagues.

Most older workers have also built up a life time of networks and industry contacts and are savvy on the way in which to ‘handle’ certain clients which cannot be documented in a manual for successors to read and easily implement.

Industries requiring a specific set of skills and knowledge, including the mining sector, are concerned about seeing this specialised knowledge ‘walk out the door’ when their older workers retire. Consequently, many organisations are scrambling to implement knowledge transfer or succession planning programs in attempt to capture as much knowledge as they can.

Mentoring programs are a great way in which to engage older workers, it gives them a sense of value while also retaining corporate knowledge within the organisation.  In addition to this, I believe a great mentoring partnership also involves reverse mentoring, where younger colleagues are given the opportunity to share their specialised skills and knowledge with their older colleagues.

This also has a great many benefits including fostering intergenerational relationships and facilitating the breakdown of stereotypes that contribute to age discrimination. Some research in discrimination has shown that people who do not have contact with a certain group often fear them, as this distance creates a lack of understanding and people fall back on stereotypes through which to perceive them. To challenge this, organisations should create opportunities for greater interaction between generations, such as through implementing two-way mentoring schemes.

Rather than relying on the current rhetoric of impending disaster associated with the ‘tsunami’ of our ageing population, HR and line managers could take the positive approach, such as seeing the ageing workforce as a wealth of opportunities that can improve the business bottom line. For example, many organisations in the retail and finance sectors are experiencing an increase in the number of older clients and are employing mature age workers as it makes good business sense to reflect their growing customer base.

Despite the wealth of knowledge and experience that older workers have, recent ABS data show older workers are overrepresented in underemployment statistics. This means they are often not working as many hours as they want and are unwillingly locked in to part-time or casual work. A hidden issue that results from this is that they are offered fewer training and promotional opportunities compared with their full-time colleagues.

Older workers are also often denied learning and training opportunities as organisations perceive them as a poor return on investment. However, with the government push to extend working lives and the recent increase in the Age Pension eligibility age, older people often want and need to work longer.

Staff in their 50s may have 15 or more years left in the workforce before they are ready to retire. Consequently, HR and line managers need to ensure they adopt a longer-term vision and offer training and promotion opportunities to all staff, regardless of age.

In order to make ageing a policy priority, closer linkages between education providers and industry are also crucial. Interdisciplinary responses with a global focus will encourage innovation and strong leadership in this area. Higher education providers and VET sectors are beginning to address the increasing demand for well-rounded holistic skills, as well as industry-specific and technological skills.

Developing a population of skilled professionals with an understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of ageing is increasingly important. With strong interdisciplinary collaboration it is possible to achieve innovation in both education and service delivery to facilitate and reap the benefits of a healthy and productive ageing population.

Ruth Williams is an Academic of the Ageing in Society program at the University of Melbourne.