Human Resources

Lifelong learning critical in facilitating an age diverse workforce

Health Industry Hub | January 9, 2022 |
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Human Resources: Continuing education must evolve dramatically and keep pace with the needs of a multigenerational workforce who are living and working longer, writes work and education expert Michelle R. Weise in her latest book Long Life Learning.

Employees who are, today, over the age of 55 are choosing to remain in the workplace far longer than previous generations, and will transition between numerous jobs in order to maintain an income and enhance their careers. As humans live longer, average workers will remain on the job well into their 70s. The challenge to this otherwise positive turn of events: The job market must, inevitably, undergo radical changes in the coming decades. Indeed, the top jobs five years from now may not even exist today.

“The Global Age Watch Index Report anticipates that by 2100, the number of people aged 80 and over will increase more than sevenfold, from 125 million to 944 million,” says Weise.

Continuing education lies at the heart of this development and is the key to keeping older workers employed longer. The average four-year college degree will not suffice for a lifetime’s worth of career developments. In short, for older workers to be considered competitive in the job market, they must be given the tools to access information and ongoing training through programs that presently do not exist.

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Policy makers and educators must prioritise new learning infrastructures that allow older workers to develop new technological expertise – ideally, without the need to drop out of the workforce while learning. Failure to do so puts the ongoing prosperity of all individuals – not just today’s older workers – at risk.

For workers to remain competitive, they must learn to work with developing technologies.

As machines take on more and more rote tasks, employers will seek workers with skills that require emotional intelligence, adaptation, judgment, resilience and interpersonal communication. At the same
time, however, people will work more closely with machines than ever before: Learning hybrid skills – human+, where humans and machines work side by side – will become indispensable. This calls for the employees of tomorrow to engage in lifetime learning: returning to learning while working, or taking time off to go back to school and then re-entering the workforce.

“These new hybrid jobs do not lend themselves to static job descriptions and simple job titles. They are jobs that require technical, industry, managerial and integrated thinking skills. They often require skills in communication, persuasion and teamwork,” says HR thought leader Josh Bersin.

Government and private interests both have a role to play in this education process. Finland, for example, has launched a program, backed by its government and various corporate entities, to teach 1% of its population the basics of machine learning. Empowering workers in this way not only helps make them more “robot-proof” but, also, acknowledges the pitfalls of a society in which too few individuals know how to grapple with the ethical implications of AI’s growing presence in all areas of life. As Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg notes, understanding how to work with AI is about more than just getting or keeping a job; it’s about shaping the future world that you and your descendants will inhabit.

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The current education system is not designed for lifelong learning.

The present, mainstream system of education was not designed for learning across the life span, leaving a large portion of the working adult population at a disadvantage. Many healthcare companies presently fail to offer continuing educational opportunities to employees across the entire organisation.

Rigid structure of education channels makes balancing various responsibilities – including full-time work and child care – all but impossible for employees. If a university cannot offer enrolment flexibility to working adults and does not offer an alternative to those who cannot afford to enrol even part-time, then there is no choice but to rethink the goals of education altogether.

“Universities have not broadened their view of whom to serve and how differently they must serve learners at various stages of their lives,” writes Weise.

“In an age of continuous returns to learning, it is not sustainable to force adult learners who are struggling to survive to navigate their human+ skills development alone – on top of everything else going on in their lives,” she adds.

Even when companies offer generous tuition reimbursement benefits, most employers continue to place the burden of finding opportunities and time to learn solely on workers. Employers must do more if they truly wish to enable lifelong learning.

Integrating traditional training programs with continuous learning initiatives.

One way to help make learning more accessible to and practical for employees is to embed training within the existing workday. Learning at work occurs in bite-sized pieces, and does not complicate workers’ lives outside the workplace. These programs are designed to be hands-on and directly related to employees’ future upward mobility within the company.

It is important to note that employee learning must meet both the business needs as well as the individual employee’s training needs. Organisations often roll out the same internal training programs for groups of employees or the entire company despite diverse employee experiences and needs. Although there are times when this type of training is appropriate, more effort needs to be made in ensuring that individual employee training and upskilling needs are met. Upskilling an existing workforce, rather than looking for new talent to fill skill gaps, saves businesses money and helps them remain more competitive.

If the jobs of the future will rely increasingly on human skills in combination with evolving technology, education needs to cater to the learning needs of a new, unconventional generation. By providing resources that go beyond a four-year degree that will become outdated with time, personalised learning and a support system for the “learning worker” becomes indispensable.

About the Author

Michelle. R. Weise, PhD is an entrepreneur-in-residence and senior adviser at Imaginable Futures. Her writings on the future of work and education have appeared in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review.

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