Provide job development opportunities to young and old employees. In the 2020 U.S. presidential race, employee training and development has been a principal area of policy discussion:
- President Trump ordered the formation of the Council for the American Worker to confront the shortage of skilled workers.
- Democratic presidential candidates have offered competing visions of how to retrain and reskill unemployed and underemployed workers.
Just as politicians read the sentiments of their electorate, companies must reflect on how to best develop their employees’ skills.
We surveyed 510 full-time employees to learn about their experiences with and desires for professional development.
We discovered that workers’ ages, the size of their company, and whether they are members of a union affect if they want to be trained on new skills and how they expect companies to deliver such training.
To cater skill development opportunities to the expectations of their employees, companies must understand which factors influence employee expectations about job training.
- Nearly three-quarters of employees ages 18 to 34 (73%) believe it is very important for their company to help them build the skills necessary to complete their job successfully. Only 59% of employees ages 55 and over believe this to be true, however, demonstrating the heightened importance of skill development for young workers.
- Roughly half (49%) of employees ages 55 and older have not been offered job retraining in the past three years, exposing an unfortunate corporate tendency to undervalue the ability of older workers to learn new skills.
- Close to one-third of unionized workers (29%) are very satisfied with their job retraining options, while only 17% of non-unionized workers share that sentiment. Training models popularized by labor unions provide a template to develop employees.
- Fewer than half of employees (48%) in companies with 500 or fewer workers say all or most employees have the opportunity to participate in skill development programs. Experts say that employees at smaller businesses may not recognize the informal skill-building opportunities inherent at smaller organizations.
Rely on Informal Skill-Building for Younger Employees
Younger employees are more likely than veteran workers to expect their companies to help them build the skills necessary to do their job, indicating that companies should consider investing in young employees’ training.
The help younger employees expect does not have to be formalized training: The time, money, and flexibility required to complete skill-building exercises such as watching YouTube videos to learn new skills is what this group finds most valuable.
Nearly three-quarters of employees between the ages of 18 and 34 (73%) believe it is very important for their company to help them build the skills necessary to do their job. In contrast, 59% of employees 55 and older hold the same sentiment.
The emphasis younger workers place on building skills is personified by marketing and communications professional Paige Smith, who learned an entirely new set of skills to succeed at her first full-time job.
Smith, 23, graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2018 and found a marketing job at CoreChair, a Canadian manufacturer of ergonomic office chairs. Smith reported to work weeks after her college graduation with experience in writing and marketing but not in web design or website management.
Her first week at work was a surprise.
Tasked with managing CoreChair’s website, Smith made an unexpected recommendation: If the company was going to continue to make exclusively online sales, the website needed to be redesigned.
“I did not have any experience in website design,” Smith said. “However, my manager put trust into me and the skills I already had and thought I would be able to learn a lot through designing the new website.”
Smith boss supplied her with the funds necessary to use WordPress’s website builder, and she embarked on a trial-and-error-themed website redesign. She figured out what worked, disposed of what didn’t, and leaned on her pre-existing research skills, Google, and YouTube to learn more.
“The only way to learn is to fail,” Smith said. “My employer allowed me to go out of my comfort zone and learn without formal training.”
"The only way to learn is to fail." – Paige Smith, CoreChair
CoreChair’s website, once cumbersome to users, is now easily navigable, features visual explanations of the ergonomic design, and displays quotes from experts about the chair's effectiveness. Smith, once a novice at web design, led the transformation, demonstrating individual initiative and hustle that more than repaid her company’s modest investment in her skill development.
Provide Older Workers Opportunities to Overcome Skepticism About Learning New Skills
Older workers are far less likely to be offered job retraining, demonstrating that companies underestimate the interest veteran employees have in learning new skills.
Only about half of workers over 55 (51%) have been offered job retraining – access to programs to learn new skills and advance a career – in the last 3 years.
In comparison, more than 85% of workers between the ages of 18-34 have had retraining opportunities in the past 3 years.
Such a disparity in skill-building opportunities is typified by the tech industry in northern California. The median age of an American worker is 42, but at Silicon Valley stalwarts Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, median employee ages range from 28-33.
“Once you hit 35 in Silicon Valley, you become less interesting as a candidate,” said 55-year-old Tim Donovan, communications specialist at Fundbox, a San Francisco tech startup that provides revolving lines of credit for small businesses. “So many folks are fearful about trying new gigs for fear of workplace ageism.”
Skepticism of older workers in Silicon Valley and across the American economy is rooted in multiple factors:
- Perception of creating products for younger users
- Family commitments or lack of energy
- Emphasis on technical skills associated with young workers
- Assumption that mid-career workers are unable to innovate
Donovan says doubt about the ability of veteran workers in Silicon Valley was sowed in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous 2007 pronouncement about the capabilities of young workers: “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? Young people just have simpler lives.”
Some in Silicon Valley say job postings that seek “digital natives” exist to discourage applications from those who grew up without the internet. Others note that the industry seems unwilling to reward the efforts of late-career workers learning coding and other technical skills.
After decades in the workforce, Donovan calls himself a “grey asset,” and says that Silicon Valley’s disinterest in older workers has caused the tech industry to lose out on people with talent, drive, and a willingness to improve.
“Good people, regardless of age, want to improve their game,” Donovan said. “I see older employees focusing on skill expansion to deliver better results. Many of us are in a ‘prove it’ mode.”
Despite the challenges of being an older worker in Silicon Valley, Donovan feels fortunate. He works for a company that provides opportunities to workers because of ability, not age.
By underestimating the skill-building capabilities of workers such as Donovan, companies may fail to attract older employees who are willing to develop new skills.
Employees can improve themselves and the companies they work for if they are given the opportunity to learn new skills, regardless of their age.
Mimic Skill Development Programs Offered by Labor Unions
Job training conducted by labor unions provides a model companies should use for providing skill development for their employees.
The positive sentiment unionized workers have about their companies' retraining options reflects the strength of union programs: Close to two-thirds of unionized workers (64%) are satisfied with their job retraining options.
Meanwhile, only about half of non-unionized workers (54%) are satisfied with the retraining their employer provides.
Steamfitters Local 449 is a labor union in Pittsburgh that emphasizes training and skill development.
Steamfitters create, install, and service piping systems at single-family homes, factories, office buildings, and other venues requiring hot water, air conditioning, and boiling.
Local 449 offers a five-year apprenticeship program in which trainees learn to assemble, install, and maintain pipes under the supervision of a “journeyman” who was trained by the union and is currently contracting out his or her services.
Apprentices receive competitive pay and full benefits, including health care and vacation, as they work to become journeymen.
The union also provides continuing training and education to journeymen and offers access to associate degree programs for all members.
Since 2018, Local 449 has conducted training at a state-of-the-art facility that includes 66 welding booths, rigging training labs, and an overhead crane.
For a modern-day steamfitter, effectively using computers to check temperatures, water pressure, and energy use is part of the job, so Local 449 now provides training across a range of computer software.
“You need people that can work in a ditch and get muddy but also have some computer savvy and know software,” Local 449 business manager Kenneth Broadbent told WESA.
Programs developed by labor unions such as Steamfitters 449 set a standard that companies can use to give their workers stability and resources to build fundamental skills and continue to learn new skills as they become necessary.
For example, Amazon recently unveiled a plan to upskill 100,000 workers that adopts the same basic structure of many union training plans.
Companies can craft secure, effective skill development opportunities for their employees by using union training programs as a model.
Encourage Skill-Building Recognition at Small Businesses
Employees in small and medium businesses are less likely than those at large companies to have formal job development opportunities but still have chances to improve their skills and abilities.
At companies with 500 or fewer employees, 48% of employees can participate in programs to improve their skills and be more successful at their jobs.
Nearly two-thirds of employees (61%) at companies with more than 500 employees, meanwhile, say all or most employees have access to such programs.
Still, some small business employees caution that workers may not recognize that cross-functional skill development is an common everyday occurrence at smaller companies.
Thomas Ngo, a dispatcher at HVAC specialist Innovative Comfort Systems in Seattle, says he has been expected to master a variety of tasks and skills as a small business employee.
Ngo, 35, first worked as a project manager, supervising a handful of heating and cooling jobs and spending large amounts of time out of the office and at job sites. But Innovative Comfort Systems only has 30 employees and was scrambling to keep up with projects in the booming Seattle real estate market, so Ngo was tapped for a new role: in-office dispatcher.
At first, Ngo was hesitant. As a project manager, he had his own truck, ran his own crews, and set his own hours. Now, he was being asked to spend the workday stationed at a desk while simultaneously monitoring four screens and more than 60 projects.
“I’m no longer mowing the lawn but managing the whole golf course,” Ngo said.
"I’m no longer mowing the lawn but managing the whole golf course." – Thomas Ngo, Innovative Comfort Systems
Ngo eventually realized he enjoyed managing the whole course. His new role provides exposure to a variety of challenges he did not encounter in his previous role: making important decisions remotely; communicating with a variety of workers and building managers; and dealing with truck breakdowns, employee sicknesses, and on-the-job disputes.
Ngo thinks that working at a smaller company has helped him develop more skills, albeit with less formal guidance. Early in his career, Ngo worked for U.S. Bank and found that despite access to a huge number of development courses and certifications, he had little room to test out new skills in such a bureaucratic, hierarchal workplace.
At a small company, Ngo is regularly confronted with new roles, responsibilities, and challenges. He values his company’s owner’s willingness to give existing employees a chance at new tasks and says that working at a small business taught him the value of the most important workplace quality of all: perseverance.
Smaller companies should remind employees that while their opportunities to improve are less formalized, learning new skills is at the center of employees’ small business experience.
Employee Skill Development Offers Opportunity and Challenges
Employees have different attitudes about learning new skills at work depending on factors including their age, size of their company, and union membership.
To meet employee expectations about skill development opportunities, companies should consider:
- Employee age: Provide job development opportunities to young and old employees.
- Size of company: Remind employees at smaller businesses that they have skill development opportunities, too.
- Benefits of union training methods: Use training methods popularized by labor unions as a template.
By considering these factors, companies can anticipate how their workers will experience and prefer job retraining opportunities.