4. Learning more with age: Lifelong learning in the future workplace

Firm-provided training plays a key role in retaining employees and reducing turnover. Training refreshes and updates the skills of workers thereby making them and their employer more productive and can raise employee retention (Garcia, Arkes and Trost, 2002[1]; Parent, 1999[2]; Picchio and van Ours, 2013[3]), in addition to wages and productivity (Dearden, Reed and Van Reenen, 2006[4]; Konings and Vanormelingen, 2015[5]). Further, job-related training can enable continued employment and also boost cognitive learning and mental well-being, depending on the type of work (Picchio, 2021[6]). The 2022 AARP Global Employee Survey shows that lack of professional development and career advancement were important reasons for changing job. Among workers who had recently switched jobs, 23% said this was because of lack of advancement in their job, and 17% said this was because of a lack of professional development (Chapter 1, Infographic 1.1).

In many OECD countries participation in adult learning remains low. About half (46%) of adults aged 35-44 participate on average in job-related formal or non-formal training in the 12 months prior to being interviewed in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). For those aged 45-54, 41% participate, while among those aged 55-65 only 24% participate (Figure 4.1). There is wide variation in participation rates across countries, with rates for mature1 adults of less than 10% in Türkiye, Greece and Italy compared to over 30% in Sweden, the United States and New Zealand. There are also large gaps in participation across other dimensions such as firm size and skill level (people with lower skill levels receive less training compared to people with higher skill levels). This suggests that there is wide scope to improve participation in training.

Workers want to continue learning. According to the 2022 AARP Global Employee Survey, even among workers who have not participated in any job training in the last five years, 63% of those aged 25-44 want to undertake some training, and 41% of those aged 45 and above want to do so. The survey also found that 52% of respondents over the age of 45 said that the main reason for doing job training is to update their skills for better job performance. However, evidence from PIAAC shows that overall, older workers tend to have a lower willingness to participate in training which can be attributed to a range of barriers they face including time, affordability as well as due to limited offers of training (OECD, 2019[7]). Proximity to retirement may also discourage older workers and age discrimination may also limit access to training.

Investment in skills to build resilience is important as with ageing societies employers can no longer rely so heavily on a skills pipeline of younger workers leaving initial education. Older workers are more likely to experience skills obsolescence and therefore upgrading and reskilling of workers throughout their working lives is essential.

Automation, artificial intelligence and demographic change are transforming the nature of work and production, radically altering the task content of jobs. At the occupation level the risk of automation depends crucially on the particular bundles of skills and abilities that a job consists of (Lassébie and Quintini, 2022[8]). Most jobs are made up of skills and abilities that are easily automatable and those that are not. On average across OECD countries, occupations at highest risk of automation account for about 28% of employment (Lassébie and Quintini, 2022[8]). However, very few jobs are at risk of disappearing altogether; only 9% of workers are employed in occupations with a significant share of highly automatable skills and abilities (Lassébie and Quintini, 2022[8]). Population ageing itself is also leading to greater development and adoption of robots and other automation technologies at an industrial level, caused by the relative scarcity of middle-aged workers (Acemoglu and Restrepo, 2022[9]).

The risks of skill obsolescence are greatest for low-educated workers compared to those with middle or high levels of education (Lassébie and Quintini, 2022[8]). Chapter 1 shows that in some countries such as Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania, older workers with low levels of education are more likely to end up unemployed or out of the labour force after leaving a job compared to workers with high levels of education. Both younger and older workers are also more likely to be employed in high risk occupations. Unfortunately, those who are most at risk of automation are the least likely to receive training (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[10]; Lassébie and Quintini, 2022[8]), and therefore employers and governments need to take action to mitigate the risk of skill obsolescence.

Poor use of skills can lead to job dissatisfaction and is related to increased employee turnover (OECD/ILO, 2017[11]), whereas intensive skill use can stimulate investment, employees’ engagement and innovation (OECD, 2016[12]). Skills use is positively associated with being extremely satisfied at work even after taking into account skills proficiency, educational attainment, wages and socio-demographic characteristics (OECD, 2016[12]). Workers who use their skills more frequently also earn higher wages after taking into account differences in education and skills proficiency (OECD/ILO, 2017[11]). At the same time there is also evidence of a wage penalty associated with over-skilling, which also demands that skills are put to better use.

In the context of population ageing and technological change, it is vital for employers and governments to better understand how skills are used in the workplace and ensure the effective use of skills through training, workplace design, the use of technology and organisational culture (OECD/ILO, 2017[11]). Many employers are not effectively using the skills of their employees, partly because of poor work organisation.

There are a range of things that can be done to improve worker training and the use of skills in the workplace. This includes the use of high performance work practices, career development and performance management, ensuring that training is attractive to older workers, and supporting training in SMEs.

By implementing high performance work practices (HPWP), firms can improve the use of skills and raise productivity. HPWP includes aspects of work organisation, such as team work, autonomy, task discretion, mentoring, job rotation, applying new learning, as well as management practices including employee participation, incentive pay, training practices and flexibility (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[13]). Workers in firms that employ robust HPWP are generally more likely to invest/participate in further adult learning and skill development (OECD, 2021[14]).2 The way work is organised also affects the degree to which a firm can flexibly adapt new job tasks to the skills of existing or new staff.

However, HPWP are not widely used, overall use of HPWP varies from about 15% in Greece to 41% in Denmark and Sweden; the use of HPWP management practices also varies widely across countries (Figure 4.2).

The relative lack of use of HPWP might be due to a lack of information on the practices and their benefits, limitations based on firm size, managerial difficulties in implementation and reluctance of employees (OECD, 2020[15]). Governments and social partners can play a key role in promoting HPWP through supporting research, raising awareness and disseminating good practice, and funding workplace interventions (OECD, 2020[15]). Online databases and learning platforms such as the European Workplace Innovation Network, or how-to guides, and other tools can be effective (Box 4.1). Interventions designed for networks of firms rather than at individual firms can be an effective way to implement HPWP; these promote peer learning rather than from an outside actor and can be cost-effective (OECD, 2020[15]). One size may not fit all – programmes need to be adapted to individual firms.

Digital skills have become even more essential since the the COVID-19 pandemic which has driven millions of workers into remote work and learning. Ensuring that workers have the digital skills to access work and training remotely is a key component of high performance work practices. The ability to solve problems in a technology rich environment is assessed in PIAAC through an online assessment consisting of multiple tasks (OECD, 2015[18]). At Level 1, adults can complete tasks in which the goal is explicitly stated and for which a small number of operations are performed in a single familiar environment, for example using e-mail to send information to several people. At Level 3, adults can complete tasks involving multiple applications, a large number of steps, and occasional impasses, such as evaluating search engine results with a set of criteria. Data from PIAAC show that there are wide disparities in digital skill proficiency at Levels 2 or 3 between age groups (Figure 4.3).

Digital skills are closely associated with labour market outcomes. The proportion of workers who are proficient at Level 2 or 3 explains 41% of the variation in labour productivity across countries (OECD, 2015[18]). Workers who lack proficiency in digital skills are less likely to participate in the labour force and are paid lower wages compared to those who to have proficient skills (OECD, 2015[18]). Digital skills can boost worker confidence and increase their willingness and ability to participate in other types of training (Hecker, Spaulding and Kuehn, 2021[19]; OECD, 2021[14]). A wide range of initiatives designed to boost digital skills in OECD countries exist (Box 4.2).

Benefits such as incentive pay and other types of performance management and career development practices can also improve skill use and improve staff retention (Sayli et al., 2022[20]). Effective career development can grow the skills and experience that businesses need – high skill jobs often require skills that are specific to the organisation or are hard to recruit. Motivating people at work is also linked to high organisational performance (CIPD, 2005[21]). Data from the European Working Conditions Survey show that only 45% of firms have performance appraisal systems for all employees, and only 39% signal good prospects for career advancement (OECD, 2020[22]). In Belgium, under a Fund for Professional Experience, firms can apply for subsidies in order to improve the working conditions of employees aged 45 or more, including the training needed to achieve an internal change of jobs (Eurofound, 2016[23]). Even if workers are not changing jobs, a changing business environment still requires that people continue to develop, and this ensures that businesses can fully benefit from the talent and experience of their employees.

Tools such as mid-life career reviews, personal development plans and career conversations can ensure that workers make informed decisions about investments in future skills. A lack of information about relevant opportunities, ways to get involved and potential career development outcomes are often a barrier for older workers. In the 2022 AARP Global Employee Survey 25% of respondents between the age of 55 and 64 said that they found it hard to know if training was worth their time or would lead to the outcome they wanted. A lack of information, as well as a poor training offer, motivational barriers and social norms are factors that hinder participation in training (OECD, 2021[14]).

Mid-career reviews can be used to assess the extent to which the skills and experience of a worker still match the job, and what can be done to bridge any gap. They are best undertaken around the age of 40 to 50 (OECD, 2020[24]). Personal and professional development plans (PDPs) and Career Conversations (CCs) are another way to help workers discover their training needs and can help align their development with the needs of the organisation (CIPD, 2005[21]). These tools can provide information on opportunities, the kinds of jobs and career paths an employer can offer and the kinds of job moves it is possible to make (CIPD, 2005[21]). Information and feedback on skills, performance and how an employer views a persons’ potential is also central to effective career development.

Internal mobility allows employees to make lateral moves within a company, filling vacancies and trying different roles. This has been shown to have productivity benefits but is also often perceived as career advancement by employees, even if it does not involve an increase in pay or a promotion (OECD, 2020[24]). Internal mobility in this way leads to higher retention and lower turnover costs for employers. In order to increase its effectiveness, the latter should prioritise a structured, formal way to fill internal vacancies.

The incentives faced by employees and employers mean that older workers are typically less likely to receive any training and if they do, receive less of it, relative to younger workers. One reason for this is that the costs of training older workers are generally higher (higher opportunity cost) and employers might regard the expected (shorter) job duration of older workers as a reason to invest less in training older workers (Allen, 2022[25]; Picchio, 2021[6]). However, employers need to separate the effects of age and tenure. As Chapter 1 shows, younger workers tend to have higher turnover rates than older age groups and therefore the potential return to training a younger worker is not necessarily higher than an older worker. With longer working lives there is also greater opportunity for the benefits of training older workers to be realised. Finally, there is evidence that in the context of population ageing automation increases the productivity of older workers (Acemoglu and Restrepo, 2022[9]), which therefore increases the potential value of training.

The 2022 AARP Global Employee Survey found that, for workers aged over 25, cost was the most important barrier to accessing job training, followed by not knowing whether the training was worthwhile or would lead to the intended outcome (Figure 4.4, Panel A). For workers aged over 45, the main barrier to participating in training was also cost, followed by not knowing whether the training was worthwhile, and difficulties in finding the right course or training provider. There are several ways to lower the cost of training for employees and employers including paid training leave and subsidies. In Belgium, paid training leave is a right granted to employees in the private sector to follow recognised training and to be absent from work while retaining their wages. The employer continues paying the salary and is reimbursed after the completion of the leave.3 Individual Learning Accounts can also be particularly helpful for those on non-standard contracts (Box 4.3).

Older workers can learn new skills, although evidence suggests that the learning processes of older workers might be different from those of younger workers (Fang, Gunderson and Lee, 2021[28]; Picchio, 2021[6]; Berg et al., 2017[29]). This suggests that training should be structured in such a way to meet the specific needs of older workers. Applied on-the-job training can be more effective for older workers, and integrating different learning styles can improve the performance of older workers (AARP, 2021[30]; Picchio, 2021[6]). Self-pacing can also be particularly beneficial for older workers as it allows them more time to master the training content. Older workers also appreciate the use of older workers as role models (Lundberg and Marshallsay, 2007[31]). Cohorts of older workers can create a safe environment were learners can ask questions of instructors and each other, and allow older workers to work together (Hecker, Spaulding and Kuehn, 2021[19]). On the other hand, multigenerational cohorts offer opportunities for mutual learning and reverse mentorship. “Train the trainer” schemes, in which older workers are trained to pass on that know-how to their younger colleagues (Lundberg and Marshallsay, 2007[31]) may act to break down negative stereotypes about older workers.

Age discrimination can also limit access to training for older workers. Evidence of age discrimination in hiring and firing is well established. There is also evidence that age discrimination can limit access to training and affect promotions (OECD, 2020[24]). Chapter 2 discusses approaches employers and governments can take to reduce age discrimination in the workplace. In addition to this, employers should ensure that training opportunities are inclusive of all ages. Information about training opportunities should be disseminated equally and simultaneously among employers. Any language that hints at ageist assumptions about who might be most interested in training should be removed (AARP, 2021[30]).

Many OECD countries have policies promoting older adults’ participation in training, some of which are highlighted in Box 4.4.

Enhancing upskilling and reskilling can be promoted by recognising and making visible the skills and knowledge gained on the job. Participation in lifelong learning activities can require a large commitment of time which can be particularly difficult for older workers if they are working full-time and have caring responsibilities. Recognition of prior learning can help to reduce the time and effort needed to engage in training (Meghnagi and Tuccio, 2022[33]). Most recognition systems focus on professional and technical competencies for the purpose of entering and progressing in the labour market or accessing continuing vocational education and non-formal on-the-job training (Meghnagi and Tuccio, 2022[33]). Other recognition systems recognise the general competencies of workers, i.e. cross-field competences that all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development. Several countries offer good examples of how to validate skills learned on the job (Box 4.5).

Employees in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are less likely to participate in training (Figure 4.5). The share of workers who participate in training is approximately 47% in small firms (1 to 50 employees), compared to 64% in firms with more than 250 employees (PIAAC data). Older adults (55-64) are also less likely to participate in training if they work in small firms (36% participation rate) compared to larger firms (56%). SMEs often lack the resources and information to provide training opportunities, therefore public intervention can help facilitate this and expand SME access to talent pools. Policies that have proved effective in Europe in supporting SMEs’ investment in skills include financial incentives, learning on the job and skill assessment and anticipation (OECD, 2021[34]).

Governments should target subsidies and vouchers at providing training opportunities for older workers and other vulnerable groups such as workers with non-standard contracts or low-skilled workers. Subsidies are particularly suited to SMEs as they lower the barriers to investment and can be easily adjusted to target different needs and circumstances (OECD, 2021[34]). Several countries are putting considerable resources into supporting firms that supply training programmes for older workers (Box 4.6).

SMEs tend to prefer informal training, such as learning by doing, peer learning, and mentoring and coaching, over formal training due to lower cost. These types of training are not typically covered by subsidies or financial incentives, therefore informal training could be encouraged by recognising these costs. In France, AFEST (Action de formation en situation de travail) is an on-the-job training programme targeted at SMEs by the government and social partners since 2014. The programme has been shown to be successful in helping employees develop relevant skills, as well as having positive effects on confidence and autonomy in completing tasks (OECD, 2021[34]).

The creation of learning and training networks enables economies of scale and can help bring down the per-worker costs of training. Governments and social partners can support these by allowing them to apply for support for projects in individual firms (OECD, 2021[34]). Competence centres can be successful in promoting digitisation and knowledge transfers to SMEs. The Finnish and Dutch Governments recognise the importance of creating such networks, with policies targeting training programs being proposed by a partnership of firms (Finnish Joint Purchasing Training Programme and MKB!dee respectively) (OECD, 2021[34]). In Austria, Impulse Training Networks (Implus-Qualifizierungs-Verbund) are networks through which companies co-operate to provide cost-efficient and work-relevant training, including organising and purchasing relevant qualifications for their employees. The public employment service offers a subsidy that covers 50% of the costs of older and low skilled workers (OECD, 2021[34]).


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← 1. The terms “mature” and “older” are used interchangeably throughout this report.

← 2. The wage returns to informal and formal training are also higher in the presence of HPWP (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[13]), suggesting that HPWP contributes to the effectiveness of training.

← 3. There is a maximum number of hours for which leave is available and a maximum training leave wage.

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