Maintaining our skills base with an ever-changing workforce

In the modern business world working practices and the work environment have changed more rapidly in the last 10 years than at any time since the industrial revolution. Technology and globalisation have precipitated round the clock demands on all of us. As a result, the world of work is now often highly stressful, relentless and not always as rewarding as we thought it would be.

Today I am coming across a lot of articles about the millennial generation and indeed the Facebook generation or Gen Z as they are more commonly known. What I find fascinating is that these younger workers appear to be seeking much more meaning and purpose to life in both work and play than previous generations.

According to an infographic released earlier this year by global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, this group of workers wants to explore and surface their deep internal motivations and higher purpose so that they can achieve greater fulfilment and enjoyment at work. The accumulation of wealth and power is rarely found to be truly motivating for this group. Rather, finding alignment between personal, business and global motivations is much more rewarding. Additionally, technology underpins all aspects of the younger generation’s lives who expect similar technology in the workplace to what they use at home.

With millennials now representing the biggest group in the workforce and Gen Z about to follow, it’s clear that employers will need to create a culture that these younger generations will feel motivated to work in. For example,it is widely recognised that most millennials aren't interested in putting 10 years into one particular job just because they think it will make their CV look better, they tend to move on every couple of years. It is also a well-known fact that millennials are considered to have short attention spans. They are used to immediate access to information and have less need to retain some aspects of knowledge because they can go and find what they need online.

As employers, we need to take all this into consideration and think about how we attract, retain and develop the people, skills and experience that our businesses will need in the future. But there’s something of a paradox here because although millennials make up the lion’s share of the workforce we also have an ageing population. Managing a generational mix in the workforce is of course nothing new, although the whole digital immigrant versus native debate does throw up some uniquely modern counterpoints. What is arguably of greater concern is how organisations achieve synergy between generations, particularly when it comes to knowledge transfer and the learning of new skills.

There’s a popular view that this typically cascades down generations, but the beauty of knowledge transfer is that it works both ways. Older generations have much to learn from their younger counterparts and this goes far beyond the adoption of new technology, which is often cited as an example. Younger generations typically see the world through a fresh pair of eyes, which can be equally powerful. They also have the ability (and opportunity) to throw out the rulebook, challenge the status quo and stimulate different thinking. Millennials are also often world travellers and can bring ideas from other cultures, all of which help to sharpen our own thinking and bring about best practices.

This bi-directional transfer of knowledge and skills is important for two reasons. Firstly, global economics now dictates that we are all likely to be in the workforce for longer, so we need to find ways of maintaining productivity and effectiveness in our older workforce. However, there has to be a sensible limit to this and so, secondly, it’s vitally important the lifetime of knowledge and experience that resides in our older workforce is transferred to the younger generations. We risk having a huge skills gap if the more senior and established employees exit the workforce without adequate succession planning in place. The impact on business would be significant with potentially serious implications for some industries.

Aircraft engineering offers us a good example of an industry facing such a dilemma. It has a highly skilled workforce, where experience is everything. One doesn’t become an aircraft engineer overnight, it takes many years of tradecraft to obtain the skills, experience and, crucially, the license to become qualified to help build and maintain the airworthiness of aircraft. And yet, according to reports in the media, this most mission critical of professions has an ageing workforce with considerable numbers of employees eligible to retire in the next five years. The industry is also challenged by what many consider to be an inadequate recruitment pipeline. This is a subject for another day, but what is clear is the need to maintain engagement of the current workforce, not only to meet current operational demands, but also to help develop the skills and expertise of the next generation of engineers.

There is, seemingly, always an anomaly and this arises in those organisations that simply cannot function without the skills and experience that only comes with age. Our own company, DAV Management, is a good example of this. We manage the delivery of business, technology and organisational change for our clients and anyone who’s been through any of these will know it’s not for the feint hearted. To deal with the complexities that change on this scale can throw at you needs experience, skill and emotional maturity, and I would argue that the only way to get this is to serve your time and get the scars. In many professions age can be a barrier but for us it’s what our clients look for and it goes with the territory. That’s not to say that we don’t develop new talent, it’s just that in our business the transfer of knowledge and skill tends to be into our client’s team.

In many ways none of this is new, but there are many factors that I believe make the challenge of a multi-generational workforce more intense today. Things like the scale of competition for talented employees, the mobility of the younger generation, the pervasiveness of mobile technology and how this enables new working practices and the degree to which our population is ageing. So for the future, I think that businesses, whatever their size, will need to put themselves in the best position to retain their current workforce, while attracting the next generation into the workplace.

The companies that will ultimately succeed will be the ones that best understand the motivations of the different generations in their workforce and how to get best overall performance out of this blend of age and experience, developing succession plans that harness and facilitate a knowledge exchange from the old to the new and vice versa.

Andrew Moore, Director, DAV Management

Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak