27 March 2023
Harness the potential of ageing workers

Shifting demographic patterns are changing the face of the UK workforce. In the construction industry, an ageing workforce is especially prevalent – and potentially problematic. This post will look at the impacts, both positive and negative, that an ageing population could have on the construction industry in the years (and decades) to come.

The workforce is ageing

Almost a third of Britain’s total workforce is aged over 50, according to a CIPD report released in March 2022, with more than 1.2 million workers over the age of 65. The report notes that this figure has been increasing in recent years and is likely to keep growing.

A separate report by Unison estimates that the average age of the working population will have risen to 44 by 2050, compared to its current level of 40. The number of under 45s is set to rise by 2.7 million, far below the extra 8 million over 45s, the report highlights.

The impacts of older workers on construction

An older workforce can have many positive effects on a construction business. Older workers often bring vast experience and knowledge to their work. This know-how built up over years of service can allow older workers to pass on invaluable insights and skills to colleagues, as well as continuing to make their own valuable contributions.

On the other hand, the main problems that an ageing workforce can cause for construction businesses include the risk of losing skilled workers as they retire. Losing employees and, consequently, having to find replacements, can be a headache for employers – especially in the case of highly skilled and knowledgeable workers.

Moreover, in a sector where many roles are physical, ageing can start to have an impact on employees’ ability to carry out their roles.

What’s the best way to deal with an ageing workforce?

In this context of pros and cons, employers should ensure their business is adapted to the needs of their employees. It is important to think too about how the experience of older workers can be fully harnessed for maximum impact.

Part of the challenge for employers is to make sure their policies and procedures work for all age groups. Being aware of the various needs and levels of support and training for different age groups will help things run smoothly.

Thinking hard about future planning is crucial too. This will allow knowledge to be shared effectively among colleagues, which will prevent any gaps in expertise when some older workers choose to retire.

Making it work

The construction industry needs to think especially carefully about reasonable adaptations for older workers given the physicality that the work often involves. It is important that employers recognise that older workers can be more susceptible to back pain, arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. For older workers in physical roles, some tasks might be harder to carry out.

The key to successful adaptation is for managers to work closely with their teams such that they quickly become aware of any issues. Referrals to occupational health services should be made promptly when appropriate, which can help to prevent injuries or illnesses resulting in more long-term problems. Chronic illness such as high blood pressure and diabetes can also be more common among older workers, which may lead to higher levels of sickness absence.

Greater use of mechanical, automated and robotic solutions can also help support workers. Likewise, another important consideration for older workers is career progression opportunities, which can help them find a role that better suits their skillset.

And next?

As is so often the case in construction, clear policies and processes need to be put in place before potential issues arise. Appropriate reasonable adjustments can enable someone to carry on working in their existing role. Should this no longer be possible, the next step is to consider potential redeployment.

In cases where an employee has been in the same role for many years, they might not have the necessary skills or experience to undertake a different role. Within the construction industry particularly, there may be fewer roles available that do not have the requirement for a certain level of physical fitness.

Therefore, where an employee is unable to undertake their role and there are no suitable redeployment opportunities, the final option could be to start an ill-health capability procedure that may result in termination of employment. This procedure should be undertaken carefully and in line with policy to reduce the risk of either age or disability discrimination claims.

Individual not demographic

When thinking about ageing workers in your business, it is best practice to consider the individual rather than making sweeping assumptions about someone’s situation based solely on their age. Indeed, treating someone differently because of their age could even lead to claims for age or disability discrimination.

Many older workers remain fully able to deliver their role until such time that they decide to leave. The focus should be on succession planning so as not to lose valuable knowledge when people decide to leave.