Aging and Developing Skills

April 5th, 2021
Young and Old

Organisations that own and operate heavy equipment are always looking for new operators. And to do that, they are primarily targeting:

  • current employees who are now doing other kinds of work, to grow their own
  • people with work experience in other fields, including military veterans [1].

In both cases, people are often “older”, in their 30s or 40s or even 50s and for that reason, there are sometimes questions about how well they could be trained, i.e. about their capacity to develop new skills to successfully operate heavy equipment.

Well, let’s begin by looking at what science tells us about aging in general. 

About Developing Skills and Aging

It’s true:  the efficiency with which we learn new skills declines with age, although we can continue to learn well into our 90s. And compared to younger people, older people can make more mistakes, so they need to concentrate more and they need more time to learn [2].

Luckily, “grit – a combination of perseverance and determination – rises through middle age and peaks in your 70s” [3] and that’s especially important here, because developing new skills requires just that, “grit”.

Remember, success means learning to work “carefully enough” and “quickly enough”, i.e. attaining targets associated safety and productivity. And so someone (older) who learns more slowly (while making more mistakes) can nonetheless achieve desired proficiency, so it’s best to prepare for real seat-time using training simulation, where mistakes have no (real world) consequences.

About Re-Training Older Operators

The technology “inside” heavy equipment is constantly evolving, as OEMs introduce more sophistication to improve functionality. And that often means new kinds of operator controls e.g. joysticks replacing levers.

And when that happens, organisations can encounter operator re-training challenges with older operators who may find it difficult to “un-learn” and then “re-learn”.

I encountered just that at a forest industry sawmill that had recently purchased new heavy equipment. The workforce was unionized, so the most senior person operating the older equipment was selected to operate the brand new machine.

But because it featured new (more modern) controls, the operator was having lots of problems. And after repeatedly damaging the machine, the local dealer refused to make any additional repairs under warranty, bringing a halt to everything. And the sawmill manager was left wondering if his operator had enough “aptitude” to (ever) learn to do things right.

To resolve the “impasse”, training simulation was brought into the picture. And after some slow-and-steady-with-the-right-kind-of-feedback simulator-based practising, the operator returned to the new equipment and all was well. In fact, it was “night and day” (or rather “day” instead of “night”).

And when I questioned the sawmill manager, he told me that everything came down to self-confidence or rather, to a lack of self-confidence. That with so much “new-ness” going from the older equipment to the new, and with so much financial pressure to make that new machine work well right from the get-go, the operator was feeling overwhelmed.

But thanks to the simulation help, he was able to “un-learn” and then “re-learn” as required, all the while re-gaining self-confidence in his operating skills.

The Bottom Line

Science tells us [2] that one of the most protective things you can do against aging is to learn a manual skill when you’re young and keep it up. But the next best thing you can do is to start learning something new when you’re (already) old. And that’s a “win-win” for operator training, and especially older candidates!

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[1] Association Education Alliance, “Confronting the Labor Shortage: Strategies and Solutions”, 2019,

[2] D. Levitin, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, Allen Lane, 2020.

[3] “A New Lead Role after 50”, Bloomberg Businessweek, December 14, 2020.