Many of us remember walking out of school after our last exam, swearing we were never putting ourselves through all that nonsense again. It wasn’t long before we realised that the world of work required more study. We apprenticed ourselves or headed back into full-time education. We became qualified in all sorts of ways – from learning to drive to gaining certificates in workplace health and safety.

But once the essentials are done, it’s all too easy for the learning to stop. Once it does, people can stagnate. Boredom sets in, or they can become fearful with a fixed mindset. You see this in the worries that surround new technologies like AI and Industry 4.0. With a limited understanding of their potential, these developments are seen as a threat and not as an opportunity.

Age, skills or attitude?

As I write this, news reports are dwelling on the challenge of getting the over-fifties back into the workplace. I’ve heard phone-ins where callers question where they can find the training they need to boost their digital skills or change direction completely. Most opportunities remain geared towards younger people or those recently qualified. And although there is no upper age limit for starting an apprenticeship, stats show that employers still tend to favour younger applicants for positions.

Perhaps employers should be focusing not on age or existing skills but on attitude. People with a growth mindset – those willing to learn – are curious, less change-averse, flexible and quicker to pick up new skills. These individuals don’t just engage more in their job, they get more enjoyment from it too. Importantly, they help to create an innovative culture.

In short, recruiting those willing to learn, and fostering the continuing learning process can deliver both a happier working environment and a competitive advantage. So why isn’t the practice of lifelong learning more widespread?

Creating a learning culture

In the middle of March, I was at elumatec’s Infocenter in Mühlacker, Germany, with around 20 customers. The Infocenter is multipurpose, incorporating both showrooms and training facilities. Throughout a relatively short visit, in this learning environment, fresh ideas were bubbling up. Delegates were discovering solutions to problems and working out how they could apply them to their circumstances. There was energy, insight and creative thinking. It was marvellous.

Visits to facilities such as these are, I guess, special events. But I believe that if we can remove the barriers to continuous learning, this sort of powerful dynamic can exist all over our industries – in both management suites and on the shop floor.

There are unfortunately many barriers to continuous learning. If our industries are to thrive, we must take the barriers down. Whether they are financial, structural or physical, they have to go. If the barrier is a lack of motivation, we must question why our people have lost their desire to gain new skills, improve their competence or master their specialism.

We should examine ourselves too. Business leaders may be at fault. It’s been proven that results-based goals can have a demotivating effect. If you set a sales target and fail to meet it, that’s it.

You’ve failed. If, however, your goal is learning-based, you can always move forward. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’ve still learned something. Even if it’s only what not to do.

Finding, developing and supporting the talent we need

We should also consider whether our attitude to lifelong learning allows us to recruit and retain the talent we need. In a rapidly changing world, the best people don’t want to fall behind in their chosen careers. They want to continue their personal and professional development.

The most successful, high-performing teams are geared to support learning. They reward those who get involved. Throughout their working lives, individuals acquire new skills – both personal and professional – and this creates the conditions where companies can thrive.

We should let people explore their interests, rather than confine them to a defined training path. The accountant may be a ‘born’ engineer. The mechanic could prove fantastic in a personnel role. If an employee’s interests don’t seem immediately relevant to your business, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Someone keen to gain qualifications in mountain leadership will learn skills that transfer to many life situations: first aid, planning, risk assessments, teamwork and more, all of which have relevance in a business context.

Learning isn’t just for school. It’s not just for a few years of further or higher education. It’s for life and industry needs to foster it.