During last year’s ‘Leading the Connected Generation’ conferences, we heard from process industry leaders of a ‘double dip’ demographic – that there is both a shortage of engineers entering the workforce, and also in the 40-50 year old range who could replace the industry’s imminent retirees. Those currently with irreplaceable experience and know-how are the over 50s, approaching retirement faster than industry can train up their replacements.
I recently heard a similar problem described in the rail, or more specifically infrastructure, sector where a major UK project is suffering from an acute shortage of experienced seasoned professional engineers. (It’s not all bad – those who do have the required experience can command the sort of salaries which puts them on a par with those other professionals engineers have compared unfavourably with in former times). Those hiring recognise the phenomenon of ‘Celebrity’ specialists, who will be engaged by whichever Consortium wins the relatively rarely tendered world-scale major infrastructure contracts. As with the world’s leading opera stars, the availability of these celebrity specialists being sought (or bought) out for ‘productions’ two or more years in advance.
One of the biggest challenges faced in this situation is that of transferring knowledge between older, experienced ‘Knowers’ and those of the younger generation. ‘Harvesting’ this knowledge and know-how whilst it is still around is a major issue for much of Europe’s industry.
A key requirement in order to ‘harvest’ the experience of seniors is to persuade seniors to share their knowledge. But it is not so easy for companies to encourage a senior close to retirement to ‘go out and share what you know’. In the best cases, an undefined audience with undefined needs, together with a continuing demand from the ‘day job’, can lead to inefficiencies. In the worst cases there could be real reluctance by the ‘Knower’ who may choose to retain the key knowledge which he hopes will ensure he is retained as a consultant long into his retirement. And those who have spent their career respecting the hierarchy in which they work are often reluctant to make demands on revered seniors.
It is a firm EIIL belief that developing young talents to overcome their ‘fear of the hierarchy’, and to encourage their natural inquisitiveness can, and in many cases has, led to much more effective inter-generational knowledge transfer. In our ’Masterclass’ workshops we challenge young talent to seek out the most relevant experience, and through their interviews with seniors from our network, to download the anecdotes which will best illustrate and help them retain the good practices they seek. When taken back into the company, this ‘Learner-driven Learning’ approach is reported by our members as being much more effective than tasking seniors to prepare a programme of knowledge-sharing activities.
It is a return to the oral history traditions of many cultures, and it may prove difficult for the 40 – 50 year-olds. But since industry may have no choice than (perhaps might soon be legally obliged) to hang on to its senior ‘Knowers’ for a decade or so longer than is currently the norm, for Generation C the future is bright. They are far more likely to have the initial requirement for ‘Learner-driven-learning’ – an absence of ‘fear of the hierarchy’. Their appetite, and capacity, for taking on, storing, and recalling, new knowledge could help them to harvest the relevant knowledge of industry’s imminent retirees perhaps sooner than their elders would expect.
Steve Price – EIIL Brussels June 2014