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Including Older Workers in the Transition to New Occupations

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Technological advances have always given rise to new industries and occupations. With today's growing number of tech breakthroughs, this is truer than ever. Yet, while these changes can open up opportunities for workers, history has shown that the wide-scale transition of workers into burgeoning new fields that require new skills is often difficult. Moreover, worker's likelihood of changing occupations tends to decline with age. The combination of a growing number of new occupations and demographic shifts towards an older workforce suggests a greater need for helping workers reskill and retrain for new jobs throughout their careers. Countries without effective, age-inclusive occupational transition assistance strategies and programs will risk seeing many of their most critical new jobs go unfilled.

An influx of new occupations

Even as new artificial intelligence (AI) applications dominate headlines, other technological advancements are also creating new industries and jobs. The rise of new occupations driven by evolving technologies prompted the US Census Bureau to update its 2022 Economic Census survey questions. Its latest survey of 4.2 million US businesses includes questions on additive manufacturing (otherwise known as 3D printing), industrial and service robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and autonomous mobile robots (AMR). Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that many jobs in the fastest-growing sectors, information and health care and social assistance, will require higher education, credentials, and continuous upskilling to keep up with new scientific discoveries and knowledge.

Green technologies and industries that mitigate adverse environmental effects are another area initiating many entirely new occupations. For example, two occupations that the BLS has projected to have the fastest employment growth from 2020 to 2030 are wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers. The BLS found that new green jobs had a higher median annual wage than the median wage in 2021.

Older workers and the difficulty of changing occupations

Of course, the creation of thousands of new jobs with the potential for good wages, benefits, and career advancement is good news. However, as a long history of barriers to career transitions shows, workers will need support moving from declining industries into growing ones.

BLS data reveal that men are slightly more likely to change occupations than women. In most occupational groups, occupational mobility is greater for those with higher levels of educational attainment. However, the factor most associated with occupational transition is age. Though research shows that older workers often change jobs, shifting to an entirely new occupation is less common. Occupational transfers peak between 18 and 24 years of age and then decline steadily for both women and men.

A recent analysis of workers moving into new green jobs highlights this reduced occupational mobility both at older ages and among those with lower education levels. It found that older workers and those without a college education were most likely to miss out on the transition into new and better-paying green jobs.

Reskilling workers of all ages

Fostering occupational transitions is as necessary from the employer's perspective as it is for workers desiring well-paying new jobs. Positions will remain vacant if workers lack the needed knowledge and credentials to take them, so the rapid growth of new occupations driven by technological and scientific breakthroughs will require significant investment in worker reskilling.

Many stakeholders have a role in preparing the workforce for these future jobs — employers, policymakers, education providers, career counseling services, and workers. The evidence supports improving education rates to expand occupational mobility and opportunities. Workforce readiness experts also recommend developing successful sectoral training models, guidance, and support services across the workforce, especially for those without secondary education or credentials. They also recommend improving data on the return on investment and outcomes of different training interventions so more dollars can be invested into the programs that work.

Within all of these approaches, we cannot afford to exclude older workers, particularly given the large and increasing percentage of the workforce they represent. AARP research shows that more than half of 50+ workers (62 percent) want to grow their skillsets. Still, despite their willingness to learn new skills, two in three older workers say they did not participate in any job-related training or education over the previous two years. AARP research also found the top barriers to job-related skills training among older workers included not being able to afford costs or fees, not knowing if the time spent in training would pay off, and difficulty finding the right course or training provider. In a June 2023 AARP survey on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act's (WIOA) resources and services, the vast majority (91 percent) of the Americans ages 40 and older surveyed said reapproval of WIOA should specifically address the needs of workers ages 40+.

Emerging technologies have the potential to create thousands of high-quality jobs and boost economies, but only if people of all ages can participate in the skills-building, education, and training needed for new occupations. Workers and employers alike will benefit from age-inclusive strategies and practices that successfully retrain workers to take advantage of opportunities in growing fields.

For more jobs data: Find the latest employment data in the AARP Public Policy Institute's (PPI) Employment Data Digest, PPI's monthly review of job trends for those ages 55 and over. Visit the AARP website's work and jobs section for articles on work and unemployment and job search resources. Visit the lifelong learning section for education resources and research.

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