Digital Immigrants Zero, Digital Natives Won

dilbert on training

I recently read this and had an epiphany about why older workers over 40 are becoming an endangered species, not only in the high tech industry but in companies worldwide.

“Besides the problem of “older engineers who face rapid skill obsolescence and deteriorating job opportunities,” they wrote, there’s a switch in how U.S. companies regard their employees – from a “high commitment system,” which puts a premium on long-term employment and on-the-job training, to a “high innovation system.” “Engineers are typically hired because their skills and knowledge are required for a specific technology or product being developed,” they wrote. “This system is seen as cost effective, since the company can hire required skills and does not have to retrain experienced workers, who usually command higher wages than new graduates. Of course, this puts engineers, who are no longer retrained by their companies, at a disadvantage as they age.” From SFGate.

I come from a generation of continuing education – workers who were tagged to go from event to event to learn new skills and improve or update old ones. I wondered why there were so many older (read post-40) workers being counted as part of the ‘long-term unemployed’. The answer is that “learning” has been replaced by “knowing”. If a company can find a worker with a specific skill to fill a job that requires that skill, then there’s no need to spend the time and money training someone to learn it. In today’s flat and hypercompetitve world, it’s the equivalent to trying to teach a square peg ‘roundness’ when simply finding a round peg will do.

It’s the difference between the “high-commitment system” in which employees expect to be taught and learn and improve skills while they are working in order to perform, and the “high innovation system” in which people only become employees when they can already perform the skills that are required. How they learned them is not important. Being able to prove they can do them is all that counts.

In the industrial economy where change happened more slowly there was time and money to train someone in a new skill. In today’s Digital economy, there is more talent out there than time or money, training as we knew it is becoming irrelevant. Let me repeat myself; training as we knew it is becoming irrelevant. If that scares you then you are a Digital Immigrant and should be scared. The digital revolution has happened so fast that an entire segment of the workforce now has an expired ‘use by’ date stamped on their foreheads.  Digital Natives today and in the future will always trump a Digital Immigrant in the job market. What a Digital Native has already learned will always be in higher demand than what a Digital Immigrant can learn. The younger Digital Native must be continuous learners who learn on their own dime and in their own time. What they know comes prepackaged, not as a SCORM-wrapped course, but as who they are. The Digital Immigrants are still waiting around for the class to begin.

So the next time you see a picture of an employment fair or a long-term unemployed 41-year old engineer, the knee-jerk response about “all they need is more training” is not the answer. I’m not sure what is, but the epiphany is that retraining older workers no longer works. Like they say on Wall Street, “Past performance is no longer an indicator of future returns”.