December 3, 2023


Supportive Business Potential

A Conversation With AARP Senior Advisor Heather Tinsley-Fix

A Conversation With AARP Senior Advisor Heather Tinsley-Fix

Thanks to science and medicine, we are living longer, which also means we are working longer. More people are staying in the workforce past 65 and four out of five small business owners are 45 and older, providing skills and experiences that younger employees do not have.

The jobs of the future will require different skills, and workers will need opportunities to reskill and upskill more frequently. Older workers in particular need support navigating the dynamic skill landscape, and thoughtful employers need to develop a strategy that includes workers across life stages.

As a Senior Advisor to AARP, Heather Tinsley-Fix leads efforts to equip employers with the resources and guidance to support multigenerational workforces. These resources help guide them every step of the way.

I recently spoke with Heather as AARP launched a new initiative to help employers adapt their skills to meet the needs of the new labor market. Below is a summary of our discussion.

Rhett Buttle: At a high level, how would you describe AARP’s role in supporting small businesses and their workers?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: Small businesses are the backbone of the economy. According to the SBA, 88% of all businesses in the US employ 20 people or less. Small businesses employ 47% of US workers and help form the fabric of our communities nationwide, so they are important to our work to enhance the financial security of Americans 50+. In our conversations with small businesses, we’ve heard repeatedly that they care about diversity, equity and inclusion and are a great source of jobs for older workers. In fact, they are a great place for people of all ages to work together and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience. In terms of support, we have a lot of resources, including the AARP Employer Pledge Program, the Small Business Resource Center, the AARP Employer Resource portal, and most recently, our work on the Future of Skills.

Rhett Buttle: How have older workers fared in skills-based hiring markets?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: I’m not sure we’ve fully migrated to skills-based hiring! However, one thing our research has revealed is that employers value experience over degrees and credentials — by a lot. When evaluating candidates, employers place greater emphasis on actual work experience (56% “very important”) compared to credentials like certificates (38%), institution reputation (35%),and pre-employment tests (31%). So theoretically older workers should be able to compete for jobs on the basis of their valuable experience. Unfortunately, ageism persists as a barrier. During the pandemic, AARP found that 78% of workers over 40 reported having seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace — the highest we’ve seen since we started tracking this.

Rhett Buttle: Many people are unfamiliar with the “Future of Skills” as a concept. Can you talk about what it is, and why AARP is interested?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: For a number of years we’ve been talking about the future of work, how work is changing due to automation, the blurring of lines between work and life, etc., and a significant aspect of that topic is the impact of these changes on the skills workers and companies need to succeed. If you think about it, skills (and people with those skills) are the engine that drives the changes we need to make in response to larger forces shaping the future of work. Skills are the new business currency, and finding workers with the right ones tops the list of CEO concerns in several surveys. We created our Future of Skills to house conversations on this topic because we want to ensure that mid- and late-career workers are not overlooked in the competition for talent and the initiatives to upskill the existing workforce.

Rhett Buttle: What should employers, especially small employers, take away from this conversation on the Future of Skills?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: I think first it is important to embrace the shift away from a fixed mindset towards a growth mindset. When you embrace the notion that anyone can learn, it expands the pool of talent you can potentially hire. Scarcity of talent is forcing companies to be creative in their orientation toward recruiting and the way they view candidates. Past experience, transferability of skills, and the ability to learn are more important than degrees in the current labor market, and assumptions about a candidate’s ability based on age (or any other aspect of identity) could mean missing out on talented people.

Companies are seeing the value of this approach. Carolyn Tandy, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Humana, said, “The Future of Skills provides important insight and direction on the benefit of skills-based hiring to address the seismic changes impacting our workforce. Employers will increasingly need to prioritize the reskilling and upskilling of existing workforces. This means evolving from a system where degrees are prioritized over the skills and experience that demonstrate an employee’s ability to perform a role. This cultural shift is not only required for hiring managers, but for all employees across an organization. Employees must be willing and interested in upskilling and reskilling opportunities that will prepare them for changing needs within their companies.”

Another thing I think small employers should note is that many of the top in-demand skills are the ones that can’t be automated – things like critical thinking, influencing, problem-solving, resilience – and those are skills older workers often possess because they are ones that take time to develop. The ability to anticipate mistakes before they happen, the knowledge of processes and systems, the ability to “read the room,” – these are all incredibly valuable and you often find them in people with a bit of experience under their belt.

Rhett Buttle: How can employers leverage the Future of Skills to better upskill and reskill their employees?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: Employers stand to gain a double dividend when they invest in reskilling their existing workforce to take on new challenges – they not only get the skills they need but they also retain all the institutional knowledge those workers possess. Employers should also devote some energy to figuring out the credential landscape to learn which ones provide valid proof of skills – not only for evaluating new hires but also for promoting to existing employees as a way to effectively upskill and stay with the company. For larger organizations, research shows that including a variety of training formats boosts the success of upskilling initiatives. Smaller employers can also find creative ways to reskill their employees. We created a tipsheet for small businesses on Developing Lifelong Learning Opportunities that provides ideas to get started. We also launched the AARP Skills Builder for Work to help everyone – under 50 or over 50 – gain in-demand skills and stay competitive.

Rhett Buttle: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: Though it is a hot topic, the current focus on how to upskill the workforce is not a one-time thing. The need to cyclically reskill will be part of how business gets done going forward. Organizations will need to focus on building cultures that prioritize learning. That involves more than just investing in training programs – it includes adjusting metrics, changing mindsets, providing enough slack for employees to take the time to learn new skills and so on. If learning is perennial, age as an indicator of ability becomes less relevant. We’ll all need to return to being novices multiple times in our careers. It’s a big shift.

Rhett Buttle: Why does AARP care about engaging employers?

Heather Tinsley-Fix: This is a great question and one that I get often. AARP’s mission is to empower people to choose how they live as they age. We are living longer and staying healthier for longer, which is enabling (and in many cases requiring) people to stay in the workforce longer. So work is increasingly part of our lives after 50, and longer lifespans indicate that the workforce will grow more generationally diverse over time. My role is to engage with the employer community to promote the value of age diversity, the value of older workers, and the value of building age-inclusive organizations.