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Training a multi-generational workforce

The make-up of the Canadian workforce is different today than it has ever been. For the first time there are four generational cohorts at work together: the veterans (born before 1945), the baby boomers (born 1946-63), the gen-Xers (born 1964-76) and gen-Ys (born 1977-94). Social, cultural and political factors helped shape the individual values, work ethics and learning styles of these four groups.

Training, educational and competency development programs need to be built with the end user in mind. But, more often than not, the development of these programs is the responsibility of a group of middle-aged middle managers, typically baby boomers or gen-Xers, so the needs of the gen-Ys and veterans are often neglected.

When designing a program, keep in mind the six characteristics of adult learning, identified by Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator: autonomous and self-directed; experienced and knowledgeable;  goal-oriented; relevancy-oriented; practical; and require respect.

Meeting these adult learning principles is important, but to design a program that is inclusive of the four generations, we need to think about each generation and what makes them “tick.”

The veterans (born before 1945) lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. They are self-sacrificing and loyal to their family, community and employer. They have an extremely strong work ethic and will do what they are told to do out of respect.

The baby boomers (born 1946-63) are a committed group that grew up during an unprecedented period of great economic growth. They are committed workers and believe in strong support of the family unit. Boomers feel you have to “put in your time” before expecting a promotion or raise and are hardworking and loyal employees. They tend to struggle with technology but will use it with some success.

The gen-Xers (born 1964-76) are a practical group and the first to really accept diversity. The so-called “latch-key kids” were the first generation to grow up in single-parent families or families where both parents were working. They are independent-minded people, good problem-solvers and are able to multi-task. They readily accept technology. 

The gen-Ys (born 1977-94) are the offspring of the boomers. They are the “coddled” generation and they are optimistic, bright and very capable. They don’t just accept diversity, they embrace it. Multi-tasking is part of their everyday life. They expect technology to be there for them, and they like structure and group collaborative efforts. 

With such diversity in their upbringing comes diversity in their preferred learning styles. Consider how you would best teach each age group about the requirements for working at elevation. 

The veterans like structured learning and prefer the traditional classroom. They like to be told what to do and are prolific note-takers. A good fall protection learning activity for them might include a short lecture followed by an activity where they review and summarize the regulatory requirements.

The baby boomers like the lecture and workshop teaching style that is dominant in today’s workplace. They like to be challenged and do not hesitate to share their experiences in class. Boomers would enjoy a PowerPoint presentation on fall protection followed by a group discussion where learners can share their experiences setting up fall protection programs and discuss best practices.

The gen-Xers like a more relaxed and somewhat fun learning environment. They prefer interactive learning activities that will involve them asking the questions and they enjoy role-play exercises. For fall protection training, assign a pre-class review of some online resources they can study privately. In the class, make it a hands-on exercise where each learner has the opportunity to don the harness and feel what it is like to wear the required personal protective equipment.

The gen-Ys grew up in a media-centric world and expect all learning will involve software, mobile devices, blogs, podcasts and social media. Given a choice, they would rather use game playing as the central focus of all learning activities. They can get bored easily in a structured lecture-based learning environment. To provide fall protection training to this group, have them research the subject, find statistics on fatalities and injuries from falls, or collect audio testimony of the importance of fall protection from workers who work at heights. Have them develop or play an electronic version of fall protection trivial pursuit.

With such diversity in learning preferences, a successful training, educational and competency development program will include blended, active learning. There will not be a one-size-fits-all formula. Recognize the generation cohorts in your learner groups and identify the commonalities in learning preferences. 

No matter what the lesson, offer flexibility. Learning options need to be multi-faceted and include online tools, classroom lectures, workshops, self-study options, group work and solitary assignments. Stick to the accepted principles of adult learning and build a program full of variation, diversity and selection. 

But once you think you have it all figured out, watch out. Following the gen-Ys is a new generation; the digital generation (born after 1994). Without lots of digital interactivity and video game-type activity, this generational cohort will fall asleep in your next training class.

Glyn Jones

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships in Calgary and the regional vice-president of Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut for the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He also provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs. He can be reached at gjones@ehsp.ca.
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