Do you train your gray wolves exactly like your young lions?
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Do you train your gray wolves exactly like your young lions?

As you no doubt suspected already, the workforce is getting older: From a median of 37.1 in 1992, the average age of U.S. employees shot up to 41.9 in 2012 and is projected to increase further to 42.6 by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you’re among those responsible for training this growing number of older employees, you may have wondered whether the same training techniques that work with Gens X and Y deliver equally good results with those graying Baby Boomers.

The answer, according to recent research, is No. If you don’t adapt the form and content of your training to the age of your employees, you aren’t getting maximum efficiency.

The research was done by Professor Thomas Zwick of the University of Wurzburg in Germany, and is based on a sampling of more than 6,300 German workers. But the conclusions are interesting for American employers, too, since they focus on employee learning styles and career goals that are much more a function of age than of national workplace culture.

Form and content
Zwick’s research looked at four different age cohorts among employees: Those born in 1951 and before (WWII babies and older Boomers), those born from 1952-1961 (younger Boomers), those born from 1962-1971 (tail end of the Boomers and older Generation X), and those born in or after 1972 (younger Gen X and all of Gen Y).

The participants were asked about their training goals, their preferred methods of training delivery and how effective they felt their training had been. After analyzing the responses, the study came to these main conclusions:

1) Training format. Older employees say they get more out of training that is informal, on-the-job and/or self-paced. By contrast, younger employees report that formal, more abstract training — like courses and seminars — works well for them.

2) Training content. Older employees don’t get as much out of training on topics that require the acquisition of brand-new knowledge, like technical content or information technology. They reap greater benefits from training in such topics as communication, management and leadership, where they can bring to bear what the research calls “crystallized knowledge” — i.e., savvy derived from experience.

What they’re after
What’s more, older employees — especially those over 55 — don’t have the same goals when they approach training, the research found. These older workers pursue training goals like increased productivity, higher earnings and promotion to a significantly lesser extent than younger employees.

But one big training goal that older employees DO respond to, the research also found, is the acquisition of immediately relevant knowledge.

In other words, older employees aren’t as willing to think about training as an investment in their workplace future — which is limited — but are willing to consider training that promises a rapid payoff in their day-to-day reality.

Customizing it
Depending on the size of your organization and the amplitude of your training budget, you may or may not be able to provide training that is perfectly customized to the ages of the people being trained. And of course, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where any older employees can claim they were discriminated against by being denied training that would have been advantageous to them.

But the German research suggests that you should, at the very least, look for ways to include in your training the kinds of subjects and techniques that speak to older employees.

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