Addressing ageism in tech will help to rectify the industry’s digital skills shortage

In this piece, Sam Schofield, Senior Vice President, Global Enterprise Sales at online learning provider Udacity, discusses why an age-diverse workforce is imperative for business success and how tech companies can strive to eliminate ageism in the workplace.

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This is a contributed article by Sam Schofield, Senior Vice President, Global Enterprise Sales at Udacity.

In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg famously told a room full of budding Stanford University entrepreneurs that “young people are just smarter.” But by stressing “the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s then-22-year-old CEO created a damaging narrative that continues to permeate the tech space today - that youth is synonymous with technical skill, and to be ‘old’ is to be technically illiterate. The consequences of such a bold statement - and the subsequent exclusion of older generations - has undoubtedly contributed to the growing staff shortage that is plaguing the technology industry at present.

This misguided belief that there is a negative correlation between age and technical ability has been proven to have had a detrimental impact on the promotion, retention and onboarding of employees over the age of 30. According to Visier Insights Database, the frequency of promotions in tech declines rapidly after the age of 36. Whilst that may not be all that surprising, a survey conducted by Stack Overflow highlighted that less than 7% of professional developers are aged 45 or over.

The upskilling revolution

There’s a clear divide between the world’s Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Zers when it comes to technology, with 41% of workers reporting that they have encountered age discrimination in the workplace. And while hoards of technology companies are striving to tackle this staffing issue by investing in young, diverse talent, many have failed to recognise the value of nurturing and developing the technical skills of those they already employ - largely due to underlying ageism.

So, how do organisations go about retaining age-diverse talent? Upskilling is the answer. As the demand for tech professionals becomes more in demand day-by-day, with more than 100,000 vacancies going unfilled each month, businesses mustn’t neglect the key role upskilling has to play in the future of the tech industry. To bridge generational gaps that have been plaguing the sector for decades, companies must provide growth opportunities to both young and old employees via a thorough upskilling programme.

Online talent transformation platforms like Udacity offer courses across core technical competencies, combined with real-world projects to arm individuals of all ages with the skills needed to fill the demand of today. In turn, this creates a unified blend of skills across age ranges to drive digital transformation within a business and creates sustainable growth. Tech giant Amazon pledged $1.2 billion towards upskilling and training across various departments within the organisation. Its ‘Upskilling 2025’ initiative provides opportunities for Amazon staff to augment their existing skillset with high-demand subject knowledge in areas such as medicine, cloud computing and machine learning. However, upskilling programmes shouldn’t just be aimed at the younger generation, as older workforces can still possess existing qualities that can be valuable to an organisation if honed or adapted for the modern-day. Equally, those of the older generation may wish to pursue different careers later in life and should be given equal opportunities to pursue these.

Age-diverse inclusivity

Many tech companies are unaware of the benefits that an age-diverse workforce can have on both the employees and the business. A leading benefit of an age-diverse workforce is a general upturn in productivity, which can lead to a number of secondary benefits, including lower staff turnover and a boost in revenue. Research has shown that increasing the number of older workers within an organisation by 10% can increase productivity rates by a notable 1.1% - which, in turn, creates a positive spillover effect, helping younger workers perform better, enhancing their own productivity. In addition, staff turnover is 4% lower at firms that have a 10% higher share of older workers.

Increased investment into employees through an upskilling programme will not only better equip businesses, but empower, give purpose to, retain and demonstrate loyalty towards existing employees - especially in a hybrid working context. According to PwC, 41% of CEO’s said that their upskilling programme has been “very effective” in creating a strong culture and engaging employees. In a fast-paced industry like the tech sector, staff need to feel reassured that their skills are valuable to an organisation.

Skills of the future

Younger candidates may naturally possess more technical fluency, however, older generations have attributes and skills that can take years to develop and nurture. For example, leadership, industry knowledge and strategic thinking all come with time and professional experience - coinciding with a recent YouGov and the Centre of Ageing Better report that states that the work of older workers is crucial to the overall success of an organisation. As we exit the pandemic, varied skills will be required to equip all areas of a business and provide an unmatched competitive edge. Failure to adapt to a dynamic and age-diverse workforce will leave mass potential untapped.

While this change won’t happen overnight, tech companies should make a conscious effort to give everyone a chance at propelling themselves in their own careers. Indeed reports that 43% of employees worry about losing their job, so to rid the worry of redundancy and bridge the skills gap, businesses must look at upskilling to not only give older workers the chance to become more tech-savvy but to equip the younger generation with the skills needed to take on the future world of work. Inclusivity is the way forward, and by creating an environment that fosters open collaboration and learning, tech businesses will be best placed for success.

Samuel Schofield is Senior Vice President, Global Enterprise Sales at Udacity and recognises the requirements of the labour market in terms of digital transformation. He has worked with technology leaders from across the globe on upskilling their employees to provide sustainable and long-lasting futures for a wealth of Fortune 500 and Global 2000 enterprises.