Grey hairs can help the skills crisis

Chris Cheetham, director of Cheetham Hall, highlights the benefits of employing older workers.

In the mid-1990s I frequently travelled to south-east Asia to meet customers. On one trip in Thailand, I clearly recall a conversation with our customer, who had just attended a 70th birthday party for one of the US nationals on the team. Apparently he was not the first to reach 70 whilst working on the project. 

At the time we found this very unusual, as the Brits and Australians were generally in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Twenty years later, this situation is far more common in the UK. Whilst the reasons for working longer may vary, this trend is likely to continue. 

Many excellent recent articles on the skills shortage in the consulting engineering sector have focused on the importance of attracting more apprentices and graduates. In addition, though, we should not lose sight of the huge contribution that the more mature sector of the workforce can provide. 

These employees form a long-term asset, helping in: 

•transferring knowledge to the next generation; 

•accelerating the learning process for younger engineers; 

•providing confidence to clients; 

•utilising the wide range of contacts developed throughout their careers; and 

•providing stability in often fastchanging corporate environments. 

My observations from interviewing many people at this stage of their career are that very few organisations consciously plan how to maximise the contribution of these individuals, for their benefit as well as the company’s. Often factors such as constantly working away from home; difficult commutes or travel requirements that push individuals towards retirement. In many cases, with some thought, their services and knowledge could be retained. Part-time is better than no time when skills are in short supply, yet this is an option which is rarely offered. 

Smart organisations will work hard to retain the knowledge and experience that the “grey hairs” possess. They will introduce flexible work programmes and use these staffers as key mentors for the new generation. With today’s healthcare and IT literacy, 65 is no longer old. For the CEOs reading this, when did you last do a skills audit?


Chris, well done for bringing out this immensely important situation. it needs much more consideration by all organisations particularly in consultancy. Rod