Wise Ways to Train Older Workers

As we age, our needs do change. But they can be easily accommodated

I should know because I have one or two grey hairs 🙂 I’ve also delivered more than 500 workshops and keynotes for corporations and universities in North America, Europe and Asia.

Older workers are about to come into their own. Employers are hungry for skilled staff, baby boomers are starting to retire, the supply of young people is limited and mandatory retirement restrictions may soon disappear.

Increasingly, people will retire, then return to the workplace in a part-time or temporary capacity. At the same time, the full-time work force is growing older.

In 1991, only 29 per cent of Canada’s working-age population was between the ages of 45 and 64. That percentage will swell to 48 per cent by 2015, propped up by ever-increasing longevity and fuelled by medical advances.

That makes the retraining of older employees an essential key to warding off labour shortages.

Mature workers are organizational jewels ready to be discovered, cared for and fashioned into bright corporate contributors. Hey, just take for example Toronto’s mayoral candidates John Tory (60 years old) and Olivia Chow (57 years old) who are accomplished in their own ways and not at all ready for the retirement lifestyle.

Older workers — baby boomers and beyond — bring plenty to the corporate table. Besides skills, savvy and wisdom, they possess a positive “old-fashioned” work ethic, plus know-how cross-pollinated from years of assorted initiatives and interpersonal skills polished by experience.

Job-training programs will maintain their bank accounts, vitality, sense of well-being and quality of life. They will also enable the older person to develop skills for survival and discover new role options.

As we all get older, thankfully because the alternative is not a happy one, we face real and imagined training challenges. Aging workers as well as their employers, trainers and mentors ought to anticipate, plan for and deal with these eventualities.

Yes, even in our 40s, vision is affected. Aging thickens and sometimes yellows the lens of the eye. Minuscule muscles that control pupil dilation may become sluggish and slow to react. At the onset, we often wonder why we’re taking so long to digest information. Proper eye prescriptions can go help only so much.

Those offering training sessions should increase classroom lighting levels and reduce distracting and uncomfortable glare, which often contributes to visual and thus mental confusion.

Visual aids should have large, easy-to-read print with high-contrast colours and fewer words. Avoid highly reflective table and floor surfaces by closing classroom curtains if necessary.

Hearing difficulties, especially for higher-pitched sounds, increase with age. In our 30s and 40s, hearing can begin to decline. To compensate, trainers should make a habit of speaking in lower tones. Reduce background noise. Words should be carefully enunciated and amplified, particularly during group conversations. Rooms should have good acoustics. For learners, the hearing-aid option is far from a stigma these days. Beyond that, front row seats foster more productive learning.

The onset of struggles with memory may take place in our early 40s. Not only does memory slow knowledge acquisition, but it diminishes confidence, a foundational attitude for effective learning. Aging learners can reinforce their memories with strong note-taking. Trainers can compensate with written references, paper-based and on-line guides, summaries and job aids.

Exercises such as oral drills and memorization rely on short-term memory. They discriminate against aging adult learners. Instead, trainers should help them to combine their strong capacities for integrating new concepts with their large quantities of existing knowledge and established thought processes.

Some older-worker disadvantages are self-inflicted. Even adults 10 years removed from high school, college and university, accept as true the myth that they are too old to learn. Learning seems to grow more taxing as we move further away from our schooling years, juggle adulthood priorities and deal with fast-paced change. Doubt, in the mind of older learners as well as their instructors, can present one of the greatest obstructions.

For educators as well as their precious vintage classroom participants, education about the value of lifelong education is the answer. Older workers demand focused training. For them, relevant “how to” practices supplant theories. They also frequently favour self-directed learning.

Trainers should cultivate context as the major learning influence. On-the-job learning, mentoring and coaching also provide potent learning productivity.

Stress can have a more pronounced effect on aging bodies. When we feel stressed, adrenal glands release hormones that trigger a litany of physical responses. Blood pressure goes up. The immune system slows. Muscles tense. A relaxed pace, gentle pressures and the subtleness of edutainment provide the best training results.

Employers must combat negative workplace stereotypes. Older workers should have equal opportunities. Comments, insults and jokes about being too old to learn are as objectionably bigoted as gender, colour and cultural prejudices.

Ironically, new Internet technology can come to the rescue of older workers. When puzzled by a topic, they can find plenty of remedial guidance on the Net. There’s no need to pore over inert and complex textbooks to improve understanding. Business math can be a snap, with detailed on-line hypertext explanations augmented by entertaining and interactive e-learning.

These days, people can engage technology to learn as they work. Electronic performance support systems (EPSSs) are computerized learning tools that provide practical performance training. Instead of balancing a how-to book in one hand, a learner can have both hands free to work while watching and listening to multimedia-based repair instructions, clinical research processes or details of the power-user features of software tools.

Self-assessment testing can help individuals, both old and young, identify their unique learning realities. With that knowledge, workers can determine how best to absorb information presented in training seminars. There are loads of these self-assessment testing instruments available on the Internet aimed at helping people get in touch with their learning aptitudes, abilities and proclivities.

Courses for older adults must be designed for participation and involvement, not just reading and listening. For 40-, 50- and 60-plus adults, the roles of student and teacher blur in the classroom.

In Understanding Adult Intelligence, published in the journal Adult Learning (April, 1991), Robert J. Sternberg states that as people age, the social aspect of their intelligence strengthens.

For the class to be successful, participants need to take an active role. Not just during questions and answers, but also as discussion leaders. That’s because older workers have so much to give.

Experience is their great advantage. Let’s take advantage of their valuable experience.

Be a ripple in the pond. Make our world a better place!!!

Do the right thing! Pay it forward. Together, let’s make a positive difference.

“To give back and be given is to feel the sun from both sides” … Harry Mingail




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