Are the 3Rs still relevant today? Discuss...

Last Tuesday, I attended two meetings in different Government Departments where I was able to brief stakeholders on the work CIPD was doing to tackle important problems, but which also showed just how much there is for all of us to do in turning population ageing from a challenge into a spur for better, richer, more fulfilling – and, yes, longer – working lives.

In the morning, at the Department for Education, my colleague John Cunningham and I met a team from the OECD who are conducting a policy review of adult skills in England.  The study is sponsored by the Government and was commissioned because the results of the 2012 OECD Survey of Adult Skills (also known by the acronym PIAAC) suggested that basic skills proficiency in Britain had failed to improve over time in the way it had in most other OECD countries.

In the afternoon I was at the Department of Work and Pensions for a meeting of the working group that Ros Altman, the Business Champion for older workers has set up to support and advise her in this role.

At both meetings, we could say that CIPD wasn’t just publishing research and policy papers, aiming to influence decision makers and shift the debate – although we do that!  We also engage our members in delivering practical help.  Our Learning to Work campaign – incorporating Steps Ahead mentoring – has been running for some two and a half years now.  Thankfully, youth unemployment is now falling quickly.  Favourable demographics and the raising of the participation age will have helped a touch, and a strong labour market will have helped a lot, but hopefully some progress has finally been made in connecting young people, the education and training system and employers with each other.

In contrast to the under 25s, the unemployment rate for people aged 50-64 is below the national average.  However, if someone aged 50-64 does become unemployed, they are more likely than other age groups to be unemployed for over a year.  Just before Christmas, Employment Minister Esther McVeigh announced a package of support for older job seekers which included Work Academies, designated Job Centre Plus staff in each region to liaise with employers, work experience options etc.  CIPD is making a small contribution to this effort because we are going to pilot a mentoring scheme for older workers in the South West that will be based on the Steps Ahead model, but adjusted where necessary to reflect the needs of older unemployed people.

This particular work forms part of a broader package of CIPD research, policy materials and guidance on population ageing, what it means for employers and how the inevitable transition to a more age diverse workforce can be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Basic skills – or the lack of them – holds back people of all ages.  People aged over 50 have, on average, received less education than younger people and are less well qualified, especially women.  Younger people have received more education and are better qualified but many employers still seem to think that those leaving school, college and even university lack the basic competencies they are looking for (in addition to attitudes/soft skills and job-relevant knowledge).

The PIAAC survey provides a new perspective because it measures competence on the basis of performance in specific tests, rather than relying on qualifications or how individuals rate their own abilities.  The tests are of literacy, numeracy and “problem-solving in a technology rich environment”.  The focus on these is because they are foundation skills – without them it is difficult to acquire other skills – and the OECD show there is a very strong link between competence as measured in the survey and outcomes such as pay or likelihood of being in employment.  There is a mass of material about the survey and its findings on the web, including sample questions that show the tests aren’t rocket science – put it this way, being able to spell rocket science would probably get you past Level 1 on literacy!

Nevertheless, the chart below shows that a sizeable proportion of the population in England and Northern Ireland – Scotland and Wales did not participate – were at Level 1 or below.  With the exception of the 55-65 year old group, these proportions were higher than the average for all the OECD members taking part in the study.  The age patterns in these data are why there was so much concern when the results came out.  There is less evidence of improvement over time in England and Northern Ireland than in most other countries (with the possible exception of the 55-65 year olds, who would have been educated under the old grammar/secondary modern system).  The highest competence standards were achieved by people aged 25-44.  Note that we have to aim off a bit when looking at 16-24 year olds because many are still in education and, while young people ought to be competent in these skills by age 16, they will have had less time to practice them at an advanced level of competence.  Hopefully the OECD review will shed some light on what might explain the lack of progressive improvement: whether it is a deterioration in the education system’s ability or willingness to instil these competences in young people; whether it is due to what happens outside education (in the home or, ultimately, the workplace) such as whether children are encouraged to read books; or whether there have been changes in the value people think these skills have (for example, the level of understanding and knowledge of grammar and spelling that people need when we have software that can check spelling and grammar).

The position is very similar when it comes to numeracy, as shown in the chart below.  The correlation coefficient between literacy and numeracy scores for England and Northern Ireland is almost 0.9.  The only difference is that, when compared to other countries, we are right on the average for literacy whereas we are a bit below average on numeracy.

Nor can we assume that technology is a way for individuals to compensate for weak literacy and numeracy.  If your reading is weak, you probably won’t be able to navigate your way round pieces of software (and won’t be able to understand the help functions).  A spreadsheet can add up for you, but it relies on the individual knowing whether numbers need adding up or subtracting, or what a percentage is, or an average – not givens for those with the lowest competence.

The chart below shows proficiency levels in the problem-solving tests and compares the adult population with the 16-24 age group.  There are just three proficiency levels and, unlike the other tests, the percentages here do not add up to 100%.  Some of the people sampled had no experience of using computers (so were not offered the test), others declined to take it (it was optional) and others “failed” the test entirely.  It would seem reasonable to assume the vast majority of this group are not proficient at all in using IT.

For me, the important lesson from this chart is that we should not make any assumptions about the technological competence of young people.  Marketing types, and even people who should know better, talk about cohorts of young people being “born digital”.  But this creates an implicit (if lazy) expectation that young people will enter the labour market completely at home with digital technology, social media etc.  It may seem difficult to imagine, but there will be young people who do not have smartphones or much access to IT resources.  In addition, there are strong correlations between problem solving ability and literacy and numeracy, so weak performance there also affects performance in this test.  The 16-24 age group as a whole scores better than the adult population, which implies that older age groups might find the technology itself more of a challenge.  However, our inability to keep up with other countries is again evident.  Adults in England and Northern Ireland perform better than the OECD average but the 16-24 year olds perform worse.

The problem is that most people in the UK acquire their education at the start of their lives.  Once working, people will receive training relevant for their jobs and, sometimes, this will equip them with the skills to perform a wider set of roles or to progress to a higher level within their chosen career.  But those who receive the most investment in education and training – or who invest their own time and money in it – are those who have already received the most education.  People who leave school with few qualifications and low levels of competence in literacy and numeracy might find it difficult to access support later in life for a number of reasons (lack of time and money, lack of confidence, an unpleasant experience of education when younger etc.).

Ros Altman talks about the “3Rs” when it comes to older workers – recruit, retain and retrain.  Longer working lives means more people will be in situations where they either need to refresh their skills or acquire a completely new set of skills in order to change career.  But there are lots of hurdles people face: where do they get advice on what might be suitable for them; how do they find the right provider; how do they pay for it; and how do they know if what is available is good value for money. 

That is why, in our Manifesto for Work, we said that the next government needed to start building the culture and infrastructure that would support lifelong learning, which has to include access to impartial and relevant advice and guidance at all stages in life. 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.


  • I left school after my A-levels, got AAC so could have gone to university if I wanted but honestly I’d had enough of studying…I wanted to jump straight into work, start from the bottom and build on my experiences and skills. Problem is getting your foot through the door especially at that age as I didn’t have the ‘higher education’ employers were looking for or the ‘experience’ to fulfil the competencies required for that particular role so it was a nightmare trying to find someone who would employ me. Eventually I got lucky with a great HR role, as I have a mentor in my manager who fully supports me and wants me to complete the HR life cycle, so I personally really champion the idea of mentoring schemes. Just because I don’t have the education or experience, doesn’t mean I’m any less competent than someone who has a degree or experience…it’s a matter of constructive training. Experience and education isn’t always the be all and end all…I wouldn’t have been offered my role otherwise! We have employees who started on the shop floor coming straight out of school and they’re now part of the management team so it is possible.

    On the other end of the scale, I would like to believe that the 3Rs of recruiting, retaining and retraining  older workers is good practice today,  but I can’t see much evidence of it happening. Speaking with some older colleagues, they feel that it is a battle to find work if you are over the age of 55 and their skills are often going to waste as they can only secure lower-level positions than they held previously.  Despite years of experience and even self-funded CPD, they are often overlooked for promotion and training despite being more than competent for available roles.   It is disheartening that employers do not recognise the value of both younger and older potential employees and that respective Governments haven’t done more to help both.  

    Sharanpal, Caroline and Maddie – current CIPD student members


  • I left school after my A-levels, got AAC so could have gone to university if I wanted but honestly I’d had enough of studying…I wanted to jump straight into work, start from the bottom and build on my experiences and skills. Problem is getting your foot through the door especially at that age as I didn’t have the ‘higher education’ employers were looking for or the ‘experience’ to fulfil the competencies required for that particular role so it was a nightmare trying to find someone who would employ me. Eventually I got lucky with a great HR role, as I have a mentor in my manager who fully supports me and wants me to complete the HR life cycle, so I personally really champion the idea of mentoring schemes. Just because I don’t have the education or experience, doesn’t mean I’m any less competent than someone who has a degree or experience…it’s a matter of constructive training. Experience and education isn’t always the be all and end all…I wouldn’t have been offered my role otherwise! We have employees who started on the shop floor coming straight out of school and they’re now part of the management team so it is possible.

    On the other end of the scale, I would like to believe that the 3Rs of recruiting, retaining and retraining  older workers is good practice today,  but I can’t see much evidence of it happening. Speaking with some older colleagues, they feel that it is a battle to find work if you are over the age of 55 and their skills are often going to waste as they can only secure lower-level positions than they held previously.  Despite years of experience and even self-funded CPD, they are often overlooked for promotion and training despite being more than competent for available roles.   It is disheartening that employers do not recognise the value of both younger and older potential employees and that respective Governments haven’t done more to help both.  

    Sharanpal, Caroline and Maddie – current CIPD student members


  • I left school after my A-levels, got AAC so could have gone to university if I wanted but honestly I’d had enough of studying…I wanted to jump straight into work, start from the bottom and build on my experiences and skills. Problem is getting your foot through the door especially at that age as I didn’t have the ‘higher education’ employers were looking for or the ‘experience’ to fulfil the competencies required for that particular role so it was a nightmare trying to find someone who would employ me. Eventually I got lucky with a great HR role, as I have a mentor in my manager who fully supports me and wants me to complete the HR life cycle, so I personally really champion the idea of mentoring schemes. Just because I don’t have the education or experience, doesn’t mean I’m any less competent than someone who has a degree or experience…it’s a matter of constructive training. Experience and education isn’t always the be all and end all…I wouldn’t have been offered my role otherwise! We have employees who started on the shop floor coming straight out of school and they’re now part of the management team so it is possible.

    On the other end of the scale, I would like to believe that the 3Rs of recruiting, retaining and retraining  older workers is good practice today,  but I can’t see much evidence of it happening. Speaking with some older colleagues, they feel that it is a battle to find work if you are over the age of 55 and their skills are often going to waste as they can only secure lower-level positions than they held previously.  Despite years of experience and even self-funded CPD, they are often overlooked for promotion and training despite being more than competent for available roles.   It is disheartening that employers do not recognise the value of both younger and older potential employees and that respective Governments haven’t done more to help both.  

    Sharanpal, Caroline and Maddie – current CIPD student members


  • I would say that the 3R’s apply to the whole workforce. Not just the older workforce. That being said experience counts for a lot. You can't train people to have experience. With that in mind an older employee will have a lot more life experience that someone fresh out of the education system.

    I feel that retraining is a cost effective way of retaining staff. It also goes a long way in promoting a learning culture and staff loyalty. If staff feel like they are valued enough to be retrained they may be inclined to stay with organisations longer. There is always potential for employees to get the training and move on, this can happen in any role in any sector. It's a classic example of “What if we training them and they leave?” - “What if we don't and they stay?”

    A report carried out by Oxford Economics in February 2014 reveals that replacing members of staff incurs significant costs for employers: £30,614 per employee. There are two main factors that make up this cost:

    • The Cost of Lost Output while a replacement employee gets up to speed

    • The Logistical Cost of recruiting and absorbing a new worker.

    Organisations who cannot retain staff will suffer in ways other than financially. The burden on other staff to “take up the slack” had a detrimental impact on morale and productivity with staff often prioritising their own work over that of the employee that has left. I understand there is an element of this when retraining a staff member, however the ‘bedding in’ process is a lot shorter due to the individual understanding the business and its culture.

    I feel also this approach should not be exclusively for the older workforce, an employee of any age can be retrained. This could be for many reasons. A flexible forward thinking employer should look at this approach positive and proactive.  

    There have been cases in my own workplace where employees have been retrained to perform a different function to that of which they were employed to do. In a couple of instances they have been retrained in a different role and excelled. Having a “better in than out approach” can have its advantages, some of which I mentioned above. I also understand that this isn't always the best way forward. Attitudes of employees and management buy in needs to be considered for this to work.

    I realise that not all employees/potential employees will have this option offered to them by an employer. I think it's a good point to make that there are thousands of training providers out there offering training in a plethora of subjects. It is difficult to choose which one would suit you as a learner and also which is held I high regard by an employer. Each will have a preferred qualification body/certification that they like their staff to have. This in itself is a minefield.

    Having changed my career I have experienced this first hand when trying to choose a training provider to support progression in my new career. There are a few resources available but they seemed to be aimed at the younger workforce. The national careers service website is an excellent platform from which you can research careers and seek advice.

    Personally I have found joining groups on linked in and other social media sites can help to grow your networks and provide a sounding board for people looking for options when thinking of career changes, it is worth remembering that this is not necessarily expert impartial advice, but mainly experience and opinions of individuals based on their own careers which differ from one person to the next.

    I think that having some kind of recognised education body offering impartial lifelong learning advice would be a positive step in improving longevity in the workforce, enabling people at all stages of their working life a chance to seek advice and guidance in making life changing decisions.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    We believe that the 3r's are still relevant as a cost effective way of keeping your labour turnover down and retaining staff through loyalty. I do not think it should be assumed that younger people are going to bring those required skills simply because of their age- we must consider low educated/low income families who may not have access to technology or commitment to the educational system.

    I have seen organisations retrain older member's of their and saying "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is simply not the case  - I have personally developed people up to and including an 87 year old be taught how to complete Elearning or new EPOS systems and the satisfaction and sense of achievement was shared between both of us.

    all organisations should me retraining part of their L&D strategies but must also remember to support with the how to and not assume everyone will know where and how to be retrained.

    Orla, Sam and Kerry

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Carol - We think that the 3 'R's are great for the older workers as from when you leave school and as years pass there is always going to be new technology and to retrain those employees on new software and updates will help to retain them - it is needed - but a lot of companies do not do this - my company only trains people if it is needed for the company i.e health & safety reasons but the office staff do not receive any training on new window packages etc... one of my old companies did however offer this and I had a update on excel and ms packages.  Sometimes experience from older workers is better than qualifications as they have had no real 'work' experience.

    Ronell - Not sure if the 3 r's are relevant in my organisation, because although they recruit, they don't seem to retain as we have a large staff turn-over. I am sure it works well in other organisations!  We also don't receive any in-house training!

    Summer - the 3 r's possibly don't work in my company as our employee turnover is very high!  It’s very likely if someone will stay in our company for longer than 9 months. My company also doesn't offer any training whatsoever!  If you haven't picked things up within 3 months you are not given a permanent contract. I do also agree that in a larger company with a lower employee turnover it would be useful!

    Jane - At my College we do offer lots of training which can be for somebody's personal development as well as relevant to the person's role. For example, if somebody needs training on IT packages etc. So I think that we do encourage people to stay with us longer because of this. We would therefore retain staff for longer.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Carol - We think that the 3 'R's are great for the older workers as from when you leave school and as years pass there is always going to be new technology and to retrain those employees on new software and updates will help to retain them - it is needed - but a lot of companies do not do this - my company only trains people if it is needed for the company i.e health & safety reasons but the office staff do not receive any training on new window packages etc... one of my old companies did however offer this and I had a update on excel and ms packages.  Sometimes experience from older workers is better than qualifications as they have had no real 'work' experience.

    Ronell - Not sure if the 3 r's are relevant in my organisation, because although they recruit, they don't seem to retain as we have a large staff turn-over. I am sure it works well in other organisations!  We also don't receive any in-house training!

    Summer - the 3 r's possibly don't work in my company as our employee turnover is very high!  It’s very likely if someone will stay in our company for longer than 9 months. My company also doesn't offer any training whatsoever!  If you haven't picked things up within 3 months you are not given a permanent contract. I do also agree that in a larger company with a lower employee turnover it would be useful!

    Jane - At my College we do offer lots of training which can be for somebody's personal development as well as relevant to the person's role. For example, if somebody needs training on IT packages etc. So I think that we do encourage people to stay with us longer because of this. We would therefore retain staff for longer.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Mark,

    Concerning the numeracy issue, I am working on a project called Citizen Maths ( https://citizenmaths.com ) funded by the UFI Trust to provide a free online maths course specifically designed to improve basic maths skills in a way which is relevant to everyday working situations.  

    The project is still in development and we are interested in talking to people who have a perspective on the best way of introducing this to employers and the HR community.  

    Would be great to talk to you.  If you are interested drop me a tweet at @RichardStacy and I can DM you my email.

    Many thanks.