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Skills for now – skills for later

One of the most distinct workplace differences I have observed in the past several years is the contrast between the learning expectations of older and younger workers. Traditionally, employees accepted the training they were given at face value as a part of the employment contract. If your manager said, “go to this class,” you went. That is no longer the case. Young workers are a lot more concerned about what they are learning and why.

I started reflecting on this after a conversation with a 30-something technology manager. He mentioned he saw a distinct difference in the ways those he supported took to learning new software. “My older colleagues look at training as something the organization provides to further the organization’s goals,” he said. “They assume that this is pretty much the place where they will use the skills acquired.

“My younger colleagues draw a distinction between organizationally-specific content and that which is transferable to other situations. “For example,” he said, “learning an application that is proprietary to our firm is something they will only do on the clock. But give them a task they know will enhance a resume and they’ll spend the weekend mastering it.”

Since that conversation, I have informally surveyed managers and found their perceptions to be similar. So what can be learned from this little piece of unscientific research?

First, we might conclude that emerging professionals understand the value of transferable skills and are more strategic in their approach to acquiring them. Offered the choice between instruction on learning specific to the organization and taking a class that broadens their overall versatility, they will take the latter. This means that managers will need to do a better job of explaining the value of training on proprietary content. An incentive might also be appropriate, such as access to a mentoring program or additional training on something they might find more useful career wise.

Secondly, we should consider how we provide training, especially if that training is for organizationally-specific purposes. Too much of training is still mired in classrooms and taught by talking heads. Making the training interactive, entertaining and stimulating encourages them to embrace the content with more verve.

Thirdly, we need to consider the learner’s motivations. I would be the last person to deny instruction to someone eager to learn it. With that said, I might also be suspicious of someone who seems to take every class possible but does not appear to be all that devoted to the firm long term. Sure, the versatility might come in handy at some point, but only if he or she remains with the organization. If it appears that this individual looks upon the firm as simply a training ground from which to move elsewhere, it is best to consult with the person about your observations and challenge the veracity of his or her intent.

Training and skill acquisition is changing not only in delivery but also in perception of value and application. For this reason alone, we all need to stay ahead of the curve.

Robert W. Wendover is the director of The Center for Generational Studies. Contact him at