The future of ... upskilling

Midlife crisis: Why upskilling over-40s can shrink the digital talent gap

January 16, 2024 | By Sophie Hares

With his 50th birthday looming, Josh Berle was worried he might be left behind by technology. As Mastercard’s head of new business development in the United Kingdom, he knew his job would increasingly be grounded in knowing how to manipulate mounds of data.

So he decided to go for an upgrade. Through a program offered at Mastercard U.K. as part of a government initiative, he signed up for two courses with Multiverse, an educational startup that specializes in upskilling.

Berle set aside a few hours each week to join webinars and cram for his first exams since university. He was able to earn qualifications for data management — and has since signed up for a digital business transformation course that he hopes to complete before he turns 51.

“We’re living in a period where you need to expect and embrace accelerating change, and that means understanding where you started is not necessarily where you’re going to finish,” he says.

Mid-career upskilling programs are no longer just a handy perk for employees like Berle. As the global workforce steadily ages, they’re a vital way to boost digital skills for the over-40s, thus providing experienced staff with the acumen they need to remain relevant in the workplace and provide employers with a valuable competitive edge. But one study of labor trends in the U.K. found that workers over age 50 were half as likely to receive additional “off-the-job” training as those between 18 and 29 – limiting their prospects — and potentially their company’s growth — at a time when technology and consumer expectations are evolving rapidly.

With 150 million more jobs around the world expected to go to workers 55 and older by 2030, according to Bain & Company, the pressure is mounting for businesses to rethink their talent development programs and ensure they’re fit for employees regardless of age or tenure.

"Upskilling is a muscle you should start building as early in your career as possible, and never stop building it."
Gary VonderHaar

Gary VonderHaar is a leader in Mastercard’s Technology business unit, which considers structured upskilling, particularly with new technologies, a key part of its mission to be a magnet for tech talent. He is also executive sponsor of the company’s Experienced Professionals business resource group, a network that raises awareness of the value of experienced professionals and their contribution to a multigenerational workforce across the enterprise.

“Upskilling is a muscle you should start building as early in your career as possible, and never stop building it,” he says. He often points colleagues to Unlocked, the company’s internal career development platform that matches employees with short-term assignments, mentorships, career paths, and more where they can expand their skills – and their network. “If you can marry upskilling with relationship building, you can set your career path,” he says.

By improving their employees’ digital skill sets, companies can assure they’ll have the workforce they need to wrangle data and harness technology, such as artificial intelligence, that is central to upcoming digital transformations.

“Reskilling people into the jobs of the future empowers people with the ability to meet the changing tech landscape while reducing the risk people might otherwise face of job displacement,” says Euan Blair, founder and chief executive of Multiverse.

“Retaining and promoting these existing workers is so good for businesses because they have foundational company knowledge and the ability to give a wider view of how things really work that is worth retaining,” he adds. “Frankly, frontline workers can bring perspectives that chief executives wouldn’t otherwise hear.”

Multiverse upskilling aims to create practical learning programs that go beyond the classroom and are finely tuned to help people in their specific jobs. It is funded through the U.K.’s apprenticeship levy, which requires large companies like Mastercard to feed the equivalent of 0.5% of their payroll bill into the apprenticeship fund to support work-related training for their employees.

Older but not overlooked

Investing in upskilling is critical, particularly when it comes to talent retention, says Emily Lin, global head of Learning and Development at Mastercard. “People are more likely to commit long-term to a company that offers personal and professional growth opportunities,” she says. “Upskilling programs and talent marketplaces like Unlocked can also make workplaces more inclusive, especially for older employees who can be at greater risk of being overlooked.”

Older employees often offer their employers a spate of “durable” skills — ones that are not easily automated — that their younger counterparts may lack, Blair says. Through their experience, they have developed methods for effective communication, problem-solving and relationship building that cannot be easily replicated.

“Sometimes these are called soft skills, but there’s nothing soft about them – their importance will only grow as more tasks are replaced by automation and AI,” he says.  

It’s also important to consider that upskilling is not viewed as a career driver for older adults, says Lyndsey Simpson, the founder and CEO of the U.K.-based 55/Redefined, which helps businesses attract, grow and engage talent and consumers over 50. “It’s that ‘I’m bored – I’ve done this for 30 years and can ace this, I need to learn new things.’”

What’s more, some older employees may have a natural instinct for say, data science, but the opportunities to study it weren’t there when they attended university. She advocates for aptitude testing to open up talent pools to untrained employees with potential. “We rely too heavily on what people have done before in terms of what their potential is to do the next thing,” she says.

At Mastercard, Berle explains how he can now better analyze and manage the wealth of data he uses to build relationships with his pharmaceutical clients. But while his new set of skills has made him more resilient and better prepared for the workplace of the future, they can only go so far.

“There’s still space for the craft that comes from the way you interact with people,” Berle says. “People buy from people, regardless of the tools that are used.”

Sophie Hares, Contributor