Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
We often hear that working in organisations that continually change their work practices to be more productive and competitive requires us as employees to be flexible and adjust to those changes. One of the main motors behind these changes is innovation (e.g., technology). This means that in particular those in IT-intensive or other types of innovation-focused jobs such as product innovation must constantly learn, improve, and adapt. In other words, they must be lifelong learners to prevent them from becoming obsolete (e.g., De Grip & Smits, 2009, and Allen & de Grip, 2012).
Two quick side steps:
- Obsolescence is a notoriously diffuse concept. It refers to the degree to which professionals lack the up-to-date knowledge or skills necessary to maintain effective performance in their current or future work roles. According to Thijssen and Walter (2006) obsolescence is the depreciation of human capital; human qualities that are not maintained. This depreciation can be in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes, insights, visions, and views. Thijssen and Walter differentiate between three types of obsolescence:
- Technical skills obsolescence: Emerges when a person simply loses their grasp on certain skills or because available skills are used insufficiently, or not at all.
- Economic skills obsolescence: Caused by external changes due to a range of technological, organisational and labour market developments.
- Perspectivistic obsolescence: Caused by a person’s outdated perspectives and views on work-related and occupational trends.
- Lifelong learning is a very broad concept with many meanings and perceived goals. Here, we see it both as a vehicle for economic growth (Head, Van Hoeck, & Garson, 2015) and a way for people to regain a degree of control over their existence (Field, 2011). We define it as “ubiquitous process which takes place throughout the lifespan across a variety of life contexts” (Field, 2011).
In this blog, we explore how and to what extent (1) change and innovation actually lead to (economic) skill obsolescence and early retirement, and (2) lifelong learning reduces these effects. As learning professionals, we don’t only support workers in improving their current job performance, but also help them have a job in the future. Understanding lifelong learning research can help us see our work in the bigger scheme of things. For example, if research shows that those in innovation-focused and high change jobs retire early because of skills obsolescence, then we need to dig deeper to understand what we need to do to prevent this from happening.
We start by comparing two models of skills obsolescence; the static and the dynamic model by Allen and De Grip (2012).
Static versus dynamic model of skills obsolescence
Let’s assume that job performance is determined by an overlap between the skills a worker has and the skills they need to do to their job (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Worker-Job matching (Allen & de Grip, 2012)
Change triggers a shift in the skills needed to do the job. If we assume that a worker’s skills remain relatively static, then change will often lead a poorer match (static model). Here, more change means a decrease in the number of skills that a worker productively utilises and hence leads to skills shortages and negative effects on productivity and/or work quality. As a consequence, there’s greater risk for individual workers moving to a ‘worse’ job (e.g., requiring less knowledge/skills or a lower paid job) or becoming unemployed (i.e., losing their job). Of course, there’s not just a risk for the individual, but also for the organisation as such a skill shortage or mismatch will also lead to a loss of output/performance.
The static model assumes that formal training or on-the-job learning will compensate the likely negative effects on required skills and, thus, limit the damage. In sum, in the static model the workers’ own skills remain relatively static over time, except during periods of formal training or informal learning (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Allen and de Grip’s static model of skills obsolescence
But what if this is NOT the case? What if worker’s skills DON’T remain static over time? What if expected, regular technological changes and innovation simply create their own learning situations and as a result, workers are naturally exposed to a wide variety of experiences from which they can continuously acquire new skills and therefore their skills constantly evolve and/or change? In other words, workers may more or less automatically acquire new skills as the requirements arise. In addition, what if both employers and workers anticipate these constant changes by investing more resources (i.e., time and money) in formal training and informal learning?
In that case, we’d be dealing with a subtle but significantly different situation. Now we’re no longer dealing with a skills gap. Instead, there’s a continuous cycle of technological change and training/learning based on the skills need without causing a gap. Workers dealing with ongoing changes continuously update and upgrade their skills to meet changing requirements and therefore should be no more at risk of losing their jobs than workers in more ‘stable’ jobs and/or organisations.
This is what Allen and De Grip call the dynamic model (see figure 3).
Figure 3: Allen and De Grip’s dynamic model of skills obsolescence
Here, potential skills obsolescence is a structural characteristic of the job. Indeed, it’s actually an indication of a healthy and dynamic situation, providing lifelong learning opportunities for workers as training and learning are seen as an investment and therefore a) constant change won’t increase a worker’s risk of loss of work and b) investment will pay off because the likelihood that a worker stays in the organisation longer will increase. It’s fair to say that in this situation, changes in skill requirements and the learning of new skills keep each other roughly in balance.
Let’s see what some of the research says.
Static or dynamic and what does that mean?
We’re not going to discuss all the results because – spoiler alert – they all point in the direction that learning potential, skill obsolescence, and investment in training and informal learning are all more or less structural elements of jobs that are prone to change. The findings support the dynamic and not the static model.
People in such jobs as well as their organisations, perceive skill obsolescence as relatively constant. There’s indeed a constant flow of acquiring new skills because of technological changes that then satisfy a new skill need and then, boom, new requirements arise, and so it all continues. It’s quite reassuring that it doesn’t lead to an increased risk of loss of employment because both the change and the learning are constant and because organisations also constantly invest in the people who are in such roles, the probability that they’ll lose their job actually decreases.
Great news: The results suggest that something is going right. Now we need to understand who is doing what right and where we can still improve (the research we used for this blog is based on surveys and unemployment/retirement data). Here are some topics for learning professionals to reflect on:
- Education: In general, better educated workers participate in post-initial training more often than less educated ones. Training enables workers to bridge skills gaps. This means that, in general, better educated people are less at risk to lose their job due to skills obsolescence because… they are better educated.
Reflection: Many L&D professionals work in organisations with highly educated people, which can create somewhat of a bubble when it comes to discussions around what training and learning should look like. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves that we’re working with privileged people in the first place.
- Skill type: For example, scientists and engineers (S&Es) whose jobs require technical knowledge and skills, advanced IT, or management and planning knowledge and skills participate more in training and learn more through the tasks they perform than those whose jobs require non-technical skills (e.g., financial planning, managing people). S&Es in non-technical roles, participate more in informal learning (Smits and De Grip use self-teaching, learning through work tasks and learning through colleagues as sub categories).
Reflection: Critically distinguish between formal training and informal learning needs. There’s a big trend, especially in large organisations, to offer all kinds of ‘soft skills’ training. Let’s identify how effective that is compared to organising the work in a way that people can learn from and with each other.
- Innovation/Competition/Firm Size: Those who work in product innovation firms and/or firms that are highly competitive participate less in formal training but learn more often from tasks and colleagues. In contrast, less competitive firms and/or those with high degrees of (technical) process and organisational innovation, participate in formal training more often (and also participate in informal learning). Those who work in smaller firms participate less in training but seem to compensate that by more self-teaching.
Reflection: Determine what type of firm you work for and dig deeper into research specifically for your context. Determine when formal training is really required and to what extent informal learning participation is sufficient or perhaps even more effective/efficient than formal training and how you can best support it.
- Tenure: S&Es with more work experience have fewer learning opportunities overall. They participate less in formal training and also have fewer learning opportunities as part of their work. Also, initially, longer job tenure has a negative effect on the chances of loss of employment but that effect decreases over time. After about 19 years, additional years of tenure the chances of losing your job increase (Note to self: never stay longer than 19 years in a company! :)).
Reflection: Clearly distinguish how you design for / support those who are new versus those with a lot of experience in the role. Note that people with a lot of experience can also be novice learners. You’re a novice learner when you need to learn a task or activity that you haven’t carried out before.
And don’t forget to celebrate if you’re in a job that requires you to constantly adapt and learn as it will help you keep your job longer!
Allen, J., & de Grip, A. (2007). Skill obsolescence, lifelong learning and labor market participation. Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market, Maastricht University, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration.
Allen, J., & de Grip, A. (2012). Does skill obsolescence increase the risk of employment loss? Applied Economics, 44(25), 3237-3245.
Bartel, A. P., & Sicherman, N. (1993). Technological change and retirement decisions of older workers. Journal of Labor Economics, 11(1, Part 1), 162-183.
Bresnahan, T. F., Brynjolfsson, E., & Hitt, L. M. (2002). Information technology, workplace organization, and the demand for skilled labor: Firm-level evidence. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(1), 339-376.
De Grip, A., & Smits, W. (2012). What affects lifelong learning of scientists and engineers? International Journal of Manpower, 33(5), 583-597.
Field, J., (2010). Lifelong Learning. Retrieved from https://booksite.elsevier.com/brochures/educ/PDF/Lifelong_Learning.pdf
Head, A. J., Van Hoeck, M., & Garson, D. S. (2015). Lifelong learning in the digital age: A content analysis of recent research on participation. First Monday, 20 (2)
Thijssen, J., & Walter, E. (2006). Identifying obsolescence and related factors among elderly employees. In Conference Archives, university Forum for Human Resource Development.
 The results are mainly extracted from Allen and de Grip (2007, 2012) and De Grip and Smits (2009).
Allen and de Grip analysed a biannual survey representing a sample of the Dutch working-age population in three successive waves of 1994,1996, and 1998; a total of 4683 usable cases (data coming from the Organization of Strategic Labour Market Research (OSA) Labour Supply Panel in the Netherlands). They focused on the part of the workforce that is most at risk of losing its place in labour markets do to skill obsolescence, which is the group aged between 40 and 62. In another paper,
De Grip and Smits (2009) analysed Dutch Scientists and Engineers with a Bachelors or Master’s degree at the end of 1996. They sent a survey to all members of the Royal Institute of Engineers in the Netherlands (KIVI NIRIA). After a pre-selection process, they ended up with 4396 participants.