Skills development for a diverse older workforce

By Fran Ferrier, Gerald Burke, Chris Selby Smith Research report 30 May 2008 ISBN 978 1 921412 00 4 print; 978 1 921412 01 1 web


In the context of an ageing population, the opportunity for people aged 45 years and older to update their work-related skills and knowledge is potentially important in enabling some of these workers to remain in, or return to, employment. This study considers the diverse nature of older workers in the labour force and their learning preferences. It suggests that some changes to skill development activities are required to accommodate the motivations, objectives and ways of learning of older workers. These changes include a mix of organisational factors, such as integrating learning and work, and teaching and learning factors, such as flexibility and responsiveness to learner needs.


About the research

Australia’s population is ageing rapidly, a result of declining fertility rates and rising life expectancy. Older people in the workforce are becoming more common. We are also likely to see many individuals adjust their retirement plans and stay in the workforce for longer than they had once anticipated.

These changes to the age mix of the workforce will have signi?cant implications for the renewal and replenishment of skills. Even more than is the case currently, those aged 45 years or more and their employers will have to pay attention to strategies for effective skills development.

This may not be straightforward. Older working-age Australians are a very diverse group: in the types and levels of skills and quali?cations they hold; in their workforce experience, including occupations and industries in which they work; in their retirement aspirations; and in their willingness and con?dence to participate in learning and applying new skills.

This study, Skills development for a diverse older workforce, is based on a review of what we presently know about effective skills development for older workers and presents seven new case studies of the delivery of training to a primarily older workforce.

Given that people aged 45–64 years currently make up about one-third of the workforce and one-?fth of vocational education and training (VET) students, it is likely that the case studies will be of particular interest to those directly involved in the training of older workers.

Key messages

  • As long as good practices for the teaching and learning of adults are in place—those based on a learner-centred and inclusive approach—only small adjustments to training programs and activities will be required to meet the needs of older participants.
  • The differences among older workers, however, mean that skills development designed to support and encourage their participation in the workforce should be targeted to the needs and circumstances of speci?c sub-groups. In particular, different learning preferences, motivations and expectations should be considered when planning the type of training to be provided and how it is to be delivered.
  • Trainers, as well as employers, also need to take account of the barriers (including age discrimination) affecting some older workers.
  • The provision of effective skills development for older workers needs to go hand-in-hand with ?exible arrangements which encourage continued working, such as semi-retirement circumstances that enable older workers to combine employment with increased leisure.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

In the context of ageing populations, governments in Australia and in other Western nations fear that slower growth in the numbers of people of working age (15–64 years) will have a dampening effect on economic growth. They are thus considering how to encourage older workers to remain in the workforce beyond the point at which many currently retire.

Skills and qualifications are strongly related to workforce participation. For instance, those with higher levels of education attainment tend to participate in the labour force at higher rates and to stay in the workforce for longer. Providing older workers with opportunities to update and extend their skills and qualifications may thus enable and encourage them to continue working.

The number of people in the workforce aged 45–64 years has grown substantially over the past two decades. This is due to the larger number of people in this age group in the population, rising levels of educational attainment and greater participation by women in the workforce. However, there is still a dramatic decline in labour force participation from 55 years of age, and by age 70 years few people remain in employment.

Skill and qualification requirements vary across industries and occupations. Older people also differ in the types of industries and occupations they work in, with their participation shaped by factors such as their skills and qualifications, their gender, where they live and their cultural and language backgrounds. They vary also in their preferred hours of work, their experiences of unemployment and their retirement intentions.

Older workers participate in work-related skills development to varying extents, with differences between men and women, between different age groups and between types of programs and educational settings. Older workers face barriers to participation in skills development including: employer attitudes; lack of information about options; work and family commitments; financial difficulties; and their own attitudes to participation—including doubts about their ability to succeed. Some of these barriers have been identified as likely to affect some groups of older workers more than others. Family commitments and financial difficulties can be a problem for women more than men, while work commitments affect men more than women. Lack of employment reduces access to skills development for unemployed workers.

This project has investigated the forms of skill development most effective overall for people in the workforce aged 45 years or older and the implications of some aspects of people’s diversity for effective skills development, such as in their skills, qualifications, workforce experience and employment status, and in characteristics such as their gender and cultural and language backgrounds.

An analysis of demographic and labour market data and a review of the literature and related studies were undertaken. In addition, seven case studies of training delivery were conducted; these aimed to identify the factors contributing to the effectiveness of skills development for older workers and to highlight any adjustments required in response to the diversity found within the group. Six of the case studies centred on a specific program: training in a 5-star hotel, training in a utility company, a program in retail/hospitality, a program in engineering skills, a career change program, and a program on building skills. The seventh case study explored programs offered by an adult and community education (ACE) centre in a large region of rural Victoria, with particular attention paid to two of its programs: Community Skillsbank and a state government initiative known as Learning Towns.

Previous Australian and overseas studies have investigated the nature of good practice in skills development for older workers. From this work a range of practices have been recommended which address differences between younger and older people in motivations, objectives and ways of learning. The work indicates that, while some changes to skills development programs are required to accommodate the needs of older participants, these are generally small and can benefit participants in all age groups.

Positive outcomes could be identified from all the programs considered in the case studies for this project, with benefits flowing to enterprises, individuals and communities. Where participants were in employment, these benefits included increased efficiency, an enhanced capacity for self-supervision, a higher quality of work and the ability to take on new job roles. Where participants were not employed, positive outcomes included employment and access to further study. Increases in participants’ self-esteem and confidence were common to both.

The success of the programs was attributable largely to organisational factors and the approaches to teaching and learning. Organisational factors included:

  • cooperative arrangements for program development and delivery
  • the integration of learning and work
  • the creation of sympathetic learning environments
  • attention to appropriate staffing.

There was substantial diversity among the program participants. Major aspects of diversity with implications for the programs encompassed those highlighted earlier. Where issues arose that were related to these aspects of diversity, they were addressed primarily by identifying and gaining an understanding of the needs of program participants and establishing appropriate responses. Responses demonstrated inclusive approaches to program development and delivery, consistent with good practice in the teaching and learning of adults.

Two major conclusions are drawn from the work conducted for this project:

  • Differences among older workers mean that skills development which supports and encourages their participation in the workforce should be targeted to the needs and circumstances of specific sub-groups.

Variations among older workers; for example, skills development and learning needs; preferences, goals and motivations; and work experiences and expectations, require consideration when framing the types of skills development to be provided and how it is to be delivered. Particular account needs to be taken of gender-related differences and of the ways in which barriers to employment and participation in education and training affect different groups of older workers.

  • Appropriate and effective skills development for older workers, in all their diversity, is built on good practices in the teaching and learning of adults.

Some adaptations may be required to programs, activities and other arrangements to meet the needs of older learners in general and some specific sub-groups and individuals, but where good practices and inclusive approaches are adopted, these will generally be small.


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