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Time for a National Training Program?

Older workers represent the fastest-growing age group in the American work force. By 2005, 40 percent of workers will be over 45, federal projections show, up from 31 percent today. Yet if these employees fail to get workplace training to update their skills, a new report warns, many will face barriers to employment.

The report, "Training Older Workers for the Future," was prepared by the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. It finds that workers between the ages of 25 and 44 receive most of the job training resources in the United States. Seventy percent of corporate training funds goes to 20 percent of employees.

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"We must turn that around," says Paula Rayman, executive director of the institute. She calls training for older workers "an incredibly under-the-cover, neglected issue."

Explaining the challenge, Kathy Burnes of the American Association of Retired Persons northeast regional office in Boston says, "The notion persists that employers get a greater return on investment from younger workers. They hold the attitude that if you're over 45, you can't learn much about computers." Yet many older employees, she finds, "are excited by technology and the opportunities it offers." Workers who do resist computers often worry about looking silly or exposing a deficiency. But when computer training is designed properly, researchers say, employees overcome these fears and learn new skills.

Even when training exists, midlife and older workers complain about age bias that can extend from managers to computer trainers.

"If an older worker doesn't catch on immediately, it's assumed the problem is age," Ms. Burnes says. Since learning abilities vary for everyone, she adds, "We must be extremely cautious about drawing conclusions about learning and age."

Effective training programs also require a strong commitment from top executives, workplace specialists note. "It's amazing what doors get unlocked when the CEO is interested," says Penny Locey, manager of executive career development at Polaroid Corp. in Cambridge, Mass.

The report, commissioned by the US Department of Labor, calls for a national training policy for older workers. "The time is right for government to play a role in training," says Cynthia Costello, author of the report. "The labor market does a poor job of finding jobs for older workers." Ms. Rayman also underscores the need for tax incentives "to light fires under companies."

Describing the importance of career training, Ms. Locey uses a carrot-and-stick analogy: "If they're not up to date, they will be gone from the company - that's the stick. The carrot is the thrill of being able to do things they haven't been able to do before."

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