Training the Older Worker

Feb. 1, 2011
Navigating the challenges and advantages of training an older work force.

Older employees offer many benefits to the workplace, including experience, loyalty and a strong work ethic. But when it comes to training the older worker, employers may need to make some special considerations.

Claire A. Simmers, Ph.D., chair of the management department at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, conducts research focusing on generational differences in the workplace. She stressed that older workers should be valued for their depth of knowledge and experience.

“They've seen a lot,” she says. “In most cases, they've been around enough to understand the politics, the systems and the processes.”

On the other hand, she adds, older workers sometimes may be jaded about change or may not wish to participate in training, especially if they plan to retire within a few years. “You have to convince them that [training] is an important part of their current job,” she explains.

Older workers also might be more likely to assume they already know how to do something properly, or see no need to change how they may have been working for years. So how can trainers overcome this potential obstacle with older workers? The answer is simple: flexibility.


Simmers suggests framing training as a way to improve the worker's job rather than just another task that must be completed. Above all else, allow those older workers to put their experience to use by involving them in the process.

“Ask their opinions,” she advises. “Offer options so they could either train on their own time, come to class or do it online in their office. Offering options lets them feel as though they have control of the time for the training.”

Scott Wallace, production manager for Summit Training Source, says trainers can persuade experienced, older workers to embrace the training by inviting them to help.

“You might want to involve them in the training so they're helping the class,” he explains. Creating this mentor situation not only will make older workers more engaged in the training, but they may have good insight to offer the class, as well. “If you're in a classroom setting, you can use that to the class's advantage by having older people participate in the discussion. They may have a lot of good input,” he says.

“In other words, use their expertise and don't just dictate from the top,” Simmers adds.

Complacency also can become an issue with older workers who feel they don't need training.

“One thing we find is that older workers may be more complacent. We have to help them not go into auto pilot,” explains Nancy Kondas, global leader, product development for Training Solutions, which is part of DuPont Sustainable Solutions. She says trainers must “help people realize that complacency is dangerous when it comes to safety, and that you have to be present and remember that everything you do and every choice you make through the workday can impact your safety and the safety of others.”

“One of the things we focus on for older workers is explaining why it matters to them. I don't know that they care about big theories; they want to know how this will affect their jobs. They're out to take training to apply it to their lives,” explains Kristen Loch, the interactive media director with Summit Training Source. “We show real people in real environments, real workers in the work force, so the older workers realize we're not listening to theory or possibility. We're watching actual people doing their jobs safely because we all want to go home healthy to our families.”


If you employ a graying work force, don't assume that means these workers are unwilling or unable to use technology during the training process.

“The fastest growing group of users on Facebook is Baby Boomers and the older generation,” Simmers points out. “They are fairly savvy and using technology far more than people usually give [them] credit for.”

Janet Winner, Ph.D., manager of instruction design for Training Solutions, considers the best ways to integrate technology into training materials. “When we train someone in a self-instructional situation, we have to make sure that we provide the training tools to ease them into the new media, whether it's using an online course or sitting them at a computer lab and making sure they know how to log in,” she explains. “My observation is that when they get it, they're really proud of themselves and that they're able to use that kind of media — it makes them feel they're still in the game.”

Her colleague Kondas adds that training materials typically must be relevant to a range of ages, whether the workers are fresh out of school or nearing retirement.

“No matter what we are producing, we are trying to develop training that captures the attention of the audience and then delivers instruction with sound instructional design. Those two things are both important because if you have great instructional design but you're not capturing the audience, they're not going to listen,” she explains. “If you have wonderful, fun media that doesn't have any sound instructional design, nobody is going to learn anything.”

According to Winner and Kondas, using “shock and awe” in training materials can help battle complacency and make workers sit up and take notice. An instructional video about distracted driving might open with the wreckage of a deadly car crash. Another video might show real workers discussing their experiences losing a loved one to a workplace accident. These are ways to shake workers out of complacency and start taking safety seriously.


With age also comes an increased awareness of mortality and, ideally, the importance of safety.

“They want to survive the workplace in order to get to the next level of retirement,” Simmers says of older workers. “So there's a self-interest in safety. They can see it having major benefits … They are politically savvy enough to know there are circumstances where you want to protect yourself and the people you work with and not get sloppy — because you want to survive your job.”

Wallace adds that older workers typically are not hindered by the “cool factor” like some younger workers. For example, older employees may be less likely to balk at wearing PPE out of concern for their image. Loch adds that older workers might be more willing to wear hearing protection, for example, because they recognize their actions at work could have long-term health or safety consequences.

“The older you get, the more intelligent you become in things like safety,” Loch says. “You're no longer fearless, you no longer think you're invincible. We tend to see younger workers taking risks that older workers are aware of.”

That's all the more reason why older workers should be involved in helping younger workers at the job — particularly when it comes to safety.


Finally, Winner suggests a strategy focusing not only on training, but on the symbiotic relationship that can exist between older and younger employees.

“As the work force ages and we see droves of people getting ready to retire, it would be wise for an employer who has older workers to engage those workers in a dialogue with the younger, new, green staff that's coming up and share some of that on-the-job wisdom that the older worker has amassed over the years,” Winner says. “It would be great if employers took advantage of the skills [older workers] have and put together situations where older and younger workers can have a dialogue so that knowledge is passed on.”

That way, Winner explains, the younger worker is left with the stories and real-life experiences that the older work force has acquired over the years.

“If employers today can blend the knowledge of the older worker with the enthusiasm of the new, younger worker, it would be a great way to enhance the safety of any workplace,” she says.

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