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Learning At Work – a Research Study on Younger Workers

By Robyn Mason

Robyn Mason is currently studying as a full-time doctoral student at Massey University, Palmerston North after three years as an Assistant Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Massey University.

Technological advances, changing workplace structures and labour shortages are increasing the need for employees to be adaptable, self-directed and motivated to develop new skills and knowledge.

In addition, generational differences present a number of challenges for organisations in attracting, managing, and retaining skilled and motivated employees. In order to achieve organisational growth and sustainability, organisations must be able to maximise their employees’ potential and equip them for continuous learning and skill development while also addressing the challenges arising from generational differences. This challenge is particularly salient for organisations with younger employees who have significantly different needs and motivations to previous generations.

One factor that may play a key role in stimulating employees’ readiness and willingness to learn is the organisation’s learning environment. This article briefly outlines current research examining the role that organisations may have in shaping young workers’ beliefs about themselves as learners and their propensity for active and continuous learning. If a learning orientation is potentially affected by organisational learning environments, and if these elements can be readily and reliably measured, organisations will be better placed to focus on creating a workplace that fosters learning-focused employees and to measure the effects of this investment.

What is a Learning Orientation?

A ‘learning orientation’ is defined as an employee’s propensity to learn in a workplace setting, and comprises a number of learning-related beliefs and attitudes. A number of psychological constructs are examined in the study to determine which factors are the most indicative of a learning orientation, and which relationships are the strongest.

The core elements of a learning orientation include:

  • Self concept – how individual’s perceive themselves as a learner (e.g. do they finding learning new things easy or difficult)

  • Improvability beliefs - the extent to which the individual believes skills and knowledge are fixed or malleable;

  • Development self efficacy - an individual’s confidence for developing unfamiliar skills and learning challenging tasks at work;

  • Active motivation to learn – the extent to which the individual seeks out opportunities to learn new skills or improve their qualifications; and the extent to which they approach or avoid learning situations;

  • Lifelong learning – the importance of continuous development to the individual, and his or her keenness to pursue lifelong learning

A number of other important factors are expected to affect an employee learning orientations. For example, if an employee does not view their current job or occupation as a ‘career job’ they may be less likely to pursue opportunities for skill and knowledge development in their current working environment. The level of anxiety an individual experiences related to learning situations has also been shown to affect learning. Other factors such as traits, and family support are also expected to affect a learning orientation, however these are predominately developed before an individual enters the workforce and are outside the organisation’s sphere of influence.

Why Younger Workers?

Many organisations are experiencing significant challenges with Gen Y employees who bring different needs and motivations to the workplace than previous generations. If organisations are to attract, manage and retain a skilled, adaptable and motivated workforce, a better understanding of the needs and motivations of these new workers is needed. Capability development researchers have tended to focus on the experiences of the workforce as a whole, or specific groups of younger workers such as graduates or ‘at-risk’ school leavers, but have neglected the majority of young people who enter the labour force soon after school. This leaves a significant gap in our understanding of the developmental experiences of vocationally-skilled workers during their early years in the labour market.

Although younger workers comprise a relatively small proportion of the current workforce, they represent the future face of the labour market. According to the 2005 Census, 15-24 year olds made up approximately 16 percent of the total labour market and 12 percent of the full-time workforce. There is also high degree of full-time employment for this group across sectors, with 90 percent of younger workers in the construction sector being employed full-time, 82 percent in manufacturing, 72 percent in business, and 43 percent in retail.

Organisational Environments and Employee Learning

Previous researchers have indicated that facets of a learning orientation (e.g. improvability beliefs) may be somewhat malleable, however little research has examined the relationship between organisational environments and these more fundamental beliefs.

Recent evidence suggests that organisations and, specifically, managers can significantly affect employees’ experiences of learning. In particular, managers have been found to act as ‘gatekeepers’ for the opportunities employees have for formal learning and skill development at work. Managers have a crucial role in employee development, not only in providing opportunities for formal learning, but in creating a working environment that encourages informal learning, sharing of information and new ideas, and collegial support. This is particularly important for younger employees who may have had poor experiences of learning at school and may not feel confident developing unfamiliar skills or knowledge, or may need to be encouraged to persevere when tackling a difficult task.

If a learning orientation is malleable, the greatest influence may be during an individual’s early years in the labour market as they experience learning in a new environment and in new ways. As young people move from school or further education into the workforce organisations have an opportunity to create positive and lasting experiences that may foster learning-focussed employees for the future.

Research Method and Implications

One of the biggest challenges for organisations in the area of learning and development is measuring the return on investment. If a learning orientation is indeed malleable, and if it is potentially affected by an organisation’s learning climate, a straightforward and meaningful way of measuring this relationship is needed.

Using a survey-based approach, this research examines the core elements of an employee learning orientation and its relationships with the organisational learning environment as a step to developing such a tool. 2500 organisations were randomly selected using a stratified random sampling method from four main sectors (manufacturing, business, construction, and retail) and nine urban centres nationwide, across small (20+ FTE) to large organisations. With the support of organisations, full-time employees aged 16-24 are invited to complete a questionnaire about their experiences of learning, including their organisation’s support, their confidence for developing unfamiliar skills, and their motivation for continuous learning. Where possible, responses will be aggregated to provide organisations more specific feedback about their learning environment from the perceptions of their employees.

A robust and scientifically validated tool will enable organisations to confidently examine and improve learning in their organisation to cultivate skilled, adaptable and learning-focussed employees. Such a tool will enable managers to focus their efforts on identifying and improving specific aspects of their organisational environment. Being able to assess employee learning orientations may also provide organisations a way of determining the impact their learning climate has on younger workers’ propensity for learning and development, particularly over the longer term. The tool may also be relevant for assessing and comparing the perceptions, experiences and learning orientations of other groups of employees.

The Experiences of Organisations

This year while contacting and visiting organisations around New Zealand, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges and frustrations that many organisations experience in managing and motivating their younger contingent of workers. It is also clear that many of these experiences are not limited to any particular industry or organisations of a particular size.

In response to the challenges that many organisations have experienced, some have made deliberate decisions not to employ young apprentices or school leavers, and instead choose to employ older and qualified or experienced employees. Young people have been described by some managers as being unreliable, having little or no work ethic, no organisational commitment or stick-ability (in fact, the list was quite long), as well as some other unprintable comments!

However, not all experiences have been negative, and several managers have shared inspiring stories about the positive outcomes they have seen in their younger workers. These managers genuinely believe in the potential of young people and consequently have invested in the development of these employees. This investment need not be expensive, and is often as simple as providing some direction and guidance, encouraging them to pursue opportunities for skill and knowledge development and to persevere when they are feeling disheartened. Some managers have gone much further by helping their employees’ address their personal issues that may directly or indirectly affect their employment.

Many school leavers are uncertain of what career or occupation they wish to pursue, and the opportunity to develop vocational skills in a supportive environment may make a deep and lasting impact on their future development. This has certainly been true of many of the managers I have spoken with, some of whom are now managing the very organisation that employed them from school. It is my aim that this study will provide a step towards to a better understanding of employee learning orientations and the role that organisations have in fostering learning-focussed employees.  Young people have been described by some managers as being unreliable, having little or no work ethic, no organisational commitment or stick-ability…

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to HRINZ (Manawatu Branch), the Department of Labour, and Massey University whose financial support has made this research possible, and to my supervisors Dr Lynn Jeffrey and Dr Karl Pajo, from the College of Business at Massey University … thanks.


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