How should construction deal with an ageing workforce?

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How can the construction industry manage an ageing workforce, asks Rachel Newman?

Workforce demographics are changing, and construction businesses are grappling with how to effectively manage an ageing workforce.

According to the CIPD, there are more than 1.2 million workers over the age of 65. This figure has been growing and will continue to grow in the coming years. A Unison report highlighted that by 2050 workers over 45 will have risen by nearly 8 million, compared with a rise of just 2.7 million for younger workers.

What are the potential impacts of an ageing workforce in the construction industry?

The ageing workforce can create several issues for construction businesses, including the risk of losing skilled workers as they retire. In a sector where many roles are physical, ageing may have more impact, with some employees no longer able to carry out their roles as they get older.

What action should construction businesses take?

Employers should ensure that their policies and procedures work for all age groups. People of different ages may have different needs and require different levels of support and training. Future planning will also be important, so that knowledge is shared effectively among colleagues to ensure there are no gaps in expertise when some older workers may choose to retire.

Older workers may be more susceptible to back pain, arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions so if employees are in physical roles, they may find it harder to carry out some tasks.

Chronic illness including high blood pressure and diabetes are also more common among older workers, which may lead to higher levels of sickness absence.

Construction businesses must ensure that their managers are working closely with their teams, so they are aware of any issues quickly and that referrals to occupational health services are made promptly when appropriate. This may help to prevent injuries or illnesses resulting in more long-term problems.

As an industry, adaptations can be explored to work with an ageing workforce, whether through greater use of mechanical, automated and robotic solutions to support workers; and/or through adapting career progression opportunities to meet the expectations of a greater proportion of those who may expect more “senior” roles.

What happens if an older worker is not able to continue in their role?

The whole process is much easier if clear policies and processes are in place before potential issues arise. The first step is to ensure that any appropriate reasonable adjustments have been made to enable someone to carry on working in their existing role. If someone is not able to continue working, the next step is to consider potential redeployment.

If an employee has been in the same role for many years they may not have the necessary skills or experience to undertake a different role.

Further, within the construction industry there may be fewer roles available that do not have the requirement for a certain level of physical fitness. Where an employee is unable to undertake their role and there are no suitable redeployment opportunities there may be no alternative other than starting 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.

What are the benefits of an ageing workforce?

When considering your workforce and the impact of an ageing workforce, it is essential to also focus on all of the positives. Older workers often bring valuable experience and knowledge to a construction business. They will usually have a huge amount of insight and skill to pass on to colleagues, as well as continuing to make their own valuable contributions.

It is important not to make sweeping assumptions about someone’s ability to undertake their role, particularly a physical job, just based on their age. To do so could open you up to claims for age and/or disability discrimination. Many older workers remain fully able to deliver their role until such time that they decide to leave and the focus should be on succession planning so as not to lose valuable knowledge when people decide to leave.

Rachel Newman is employment law senior associate at national law firm Bevan Brittan

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  1. By not putting them to work on RC construction with no apparent edge protection in place (see feature photo).
    Seriously, there are two issues here. Old heads have a lot to offer where the job demands planning and decision making. Old bodies may not have the resilience to continue past a certain age.

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