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Reimagining a thriving workforce

Published July 2023

With expertise in people-focused organisational culture and a strong advocate for inclusivity in the workplace, we invited Carole O’Neil, Managing Partner of global consulting engineer, Cundall, to share her views on the realities and practicalities of an aging workforce.

In this guest article she also explores the future shape of corporate learning and development initiatives in response to shifts in career longevity.

The ability for all talent to thrive is something I feel very strongly about. But it’s important that we don’t become complacent about the size and shape of the typical talent pool and ensure that we respond, at pace, to shifting socio-economic conditions and meet the continuing needs of our colleagues.

Whilst it’s vital that we encourage and support younger generations in their career – they are the future after all – other influences are altering the landscape of the ‘traditional’ talent pool, not least the impacts of an ageing population.

With this in mind, do we need to have a radical rethink of people policies in areas such as hybrid working, an ageing workforce, advanced technology, wellbeing, competency and development frameworks and talent and retention strategies? I’m keen to explore what these might look like for both the current state and future of work.

Market conditions

Whatever change might look like, we need to move at pace. In April this year, The World Economic Forum revealed that one quarter of today’s jobs will be disrupted in the next five years, impacted by the creation of new technologies, green transition, economic pressures and future automation (source: Future of Jobs 2023).

The reports goes on to say that, of the employers surveyed, 44% believed that the core skills needed for work will change in the next five years. Prime for investment are areas including:

  • analytical and creative thinking
  • artificial intelligence and big data
  • leadership and social influence, and
  • resilience, flexibility and agility.

Presented in the report as the most ‘valuable’ skills to have, this is an important time to pause and reflect on existing arrangements, and challenge whether they are fit for purpose. Key areas to consider include:

New skills: identifying what skills are needed to respond to this change. With potentially more people staying in the workplace for longer, combined with advanced technology removing commodity tasks (and potentially more), skill diversification is critical; and a strategy required.

New L&D Frameworks: adapting existing mechanisms, evolving new techniques and adopting new training platforms and delivery methods is critical.

Reassurance and support: we all know how adapting to change can create challenge for anyone. Steps are needed to identify who in the business will struggle the most, who will respond well, how can the business provide appropriate support? Compassionate change management is essential to attracting and retaining talent.

Investment in advanced technology: leading the green transition involves not only new and transferable skills but also investment in new technologies, targeting key areas and making a difference as a force for good.

Circular economy: what can people in the earlier stages of their careers learn from the experiences of those who have gone before? There is a real need to tap into the accumulated wisdom of experienced colleagues, finding new ways to capitalise on their skills particularly in areas such as leadership, resilience and technical excellence.

So, what is standing in the way of a truly age-inclusive workforce?

Certainly, in the UK, a disproportionate number of the labour market is said to be “not meeting its full potential” (59%) when it comes to digital proficiency, as reported by Ipsos earlier this year.

Although there has been an overhaul of working practices in recent years, strategies for those in the latter stages of their career are often overlooked. Whether that be new structures and support around ongoing roles, phased retirement plans or a re-think of what ‘flexible’ working could encompass.

And to what extent is age-related bias still prevalent during the recruitment/retention process? A topic which warrants a detailed article of its own, bias (unconscious or otherwise) is something that many organisations work hard to manage. Ensuring a well-balanced, well-resourced enterprise based on skill and ability, rather than age, is now a priority for many.

Public perceptions – and misconceptions – of ‘ageing’ can also feed into this argument. Brian Halligan (CEO of Hubsport) was once reported as saying, “in the tech world, grey hair and experience are really overrated”. A throw-away comment maybe, but one which does little to encourage and endorse an age-diverse team or business structure.

Empowering people to make a change

In the industry I work in, there is growing, active discussion around age-inclusivity and equality and I was pleased to see earlier this year one of our employees, in her role as an Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) Emerging Professional, join a panel to tackle and debate the topic of ageism in the workplace. Exploring both conscious and unconscious bias, the premise of the discussions was that ‘age is no barrier’.

The backdrop of a global pandemic which influenced a large proportion of over 50s to leave the workforce, has had significant ramifications. So too the response to a global cost of living crisis. A study by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 86% of 50 to 54 year olds said that they would consider a return to work.

In this volatile world, both organisations and individuals need to be nimble and fluid in response to the ebb and flow of the modern-day workforce which is less ‘linear’ than previous generations.

Creating positive outcomes

Organisations which are fit for the future, and which respond to the needs of a diverse, all-encompassing workforce, will benefit from a holistic approach to training and development.

Much is being reported of a Chief Learning Officer (CLO), a role which is becoming more common place in senior leadership but one which still has much scope for growth. Rather than view a business in different parts, the CLO develops a clear view of the entire organisation: its nuances, strengths, weaknesses and the differing experiences (and perspectives) of its personnel.

With tangible objectives and measures I can see real value in investing in roles with learning as their focus, and in broadening these roles beyond the traditional L&D agenda, to encompass a broader focus on talent, succession planning and knowledge management, amongst other things.

People-centred strategies with tangible actions

At the heart of all this change is people. Knowing them, understanding them, respecting them, guiding them and sustaining them. This is an ongoing responsibility for all organisations.

Afterall, solving the world’s problems largely rests in the hands of people (notwithstanding AI). But even in the face of AI, there may be significant merit in the proposition that any risks it may pose can be effectively managed through the oversight of an experienced and ageing workforce; innovation and human experience working in harmony.

Without the right strategies for championing and backing a diverse and inclusive workforce, the talent pool will not thrive and perform to its fullest potential – irrespective of age.

Carole O’Neil is Global Managing Partner at multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy, Cundall. With a background in human resources and a degree in law, she is well-versed in people policies and strategy having joined Cundall in 2007 to help develop and expand its team globally. In 2021 Carole was named as the UK’s Institute of Directors’ Chartered Director of the Year for the Yorkshire and the North East region.

Credits: laptop glow photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash