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How to successfully teach young and older workers new tricks

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Since the economy, regrettably, has given older workers cause to defer retirement, workplaces are suddenly finding themselves accommodating a wide range of ages. This has ramifications for companies that are looking at offering technology training – but not because, as conventional wisdom might have it, Boomers are technologically averse. Successful training across generations is a matter of picking the right approach, and recognizing how changing demographics will affect your workplace.

Demographic shifts will make training valuable: The story of the Boomers sticking around is hiding a second demographic shift at the other end of the spectrum: Studies are predicting a shortage of knowledge workers to replace the Boomers when they actually do retire.

"One thing we're going to be incredibly short of is short of skilled workers," says Piers Steel, a professor of human resources at the University of Calgary and the author of "The Procrastination Equation," a book on time-management.

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That means that, as younger workers enter the workforce, on-the-job training is going to be more and more sought-after. Mr. Steel points to the paradox of training: Everyone loves a trained worker, but nobody wants to provide it, because it increases the likelihood that the employee will become a valuable recruit for another firm, taking that investment in education with her when she goes.

However, in a labour shortage, the offer of training – especially in the online and high-tech sector – can become a key factor in snagging talent in the first place.

"There's going to be pressure from the workers themselves," says Mr. Steel. "There's going to be so much reward for improving your skills, if you don't have it, they'll be foolish not to go to another place that does."

This effect also highlights some of the advantages of investing in training an older workforce, which is more likely to see itself as dedicated to an organization, and less inclined to job-hop.

Don't let perception trump personality: People love to talk about generations; make generalizations about their generation; and identify with a generation. But this habit can have pernicious consequences in a technology-heavy environment that changes every few years. The myth that older workers are averse to technology can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If anything, the differences between training young and old workers can come less from qualities inherent to particular generations, and more from catching people at the right end of their career.

"Usually the fundamentals of training are universal," says Mr. Steel. "You see some broad differences in that younger people tend to be more willing to take up new techniques. They don't have the burden of already having learned five different systems that are now defunct."

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Rather than letting generational attitudes entrench themselves, the Conference Board of Canada, in a report on generation gaps, recommended putting workers' personalities before their generations: What are their workplace motivations, personality types and learning styles? For instance, the Board's survey reported that introverts and extroverts are found in roughly the same proportions across generations, as were those who prefer "hands-on" training as opposed to written instruction.

Bring generational awareness to the fore: All the same, some broad rules can apply across generations. Being aware of where your workforce falls can help in determining whether to invest in webinars or in-person training.

"Online training solutions are going to be embraced more by younger generations, whereas formal classroom instruction might be more suitable for boomers," says Danielle van Jaarsveld, an associate professor at the Sauder Business School at the University of British Columbia.

Similarly, she says, younger workers tend to have different tastes in training interaction than their elders: On one hand, younger workers tend to want more feedback, to the point of actively seeking it out; on the other, they tend to resist micromanagement, and might prefer to take self-directed approaches.

But the fact that different generations respond better to different learning techniques is distinct from the material itself, and there's no reason to shy away from teaching older workers new technology skills.

Mr. Steel notes that managers should especially be aware of older workers who have become subject specialists in their fields, and buck any trend towards technological reticence by staying on top of the latest technological developments until the day they retire.

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Learning to work in a multigenerational workforce is a trainable skill in and of itself; where diversity training that focused on factors like ethnicity and background has become a mainstay in recent decades, training that tackles the age range in the workforce is coming to the fore. (This typically takes the form of taking an organization-wide consultation about what different generations need to feel fully included, and acting on it.)

Still, it bears repeating that there's more common ground between age groups than there is a generation gap. The Conference Board recommends focusing on working conditions that all employees respond to, regardless of age: Fair compensation, interesting work, trustworthy leadership, recognition, and respect.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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