Managing an ageing workforce takes more than pot luck

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How a Manufacturing Business is Successfully Managing an Ageing Workforce

One sunny day in May 2017, Fiona and I travelled north to Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire (England's West Midlands) and giggled at being referred to as 'me duck' a number of times.

Our quest was simple, visit an organisation successfully managing an ageing workforce, find out how they're doing it, and report back so other companies can do the same. Ideally we'd also collect stories, advice and inspiration for over 50s who are looking for work or are thinking about a career change.

About Steelite International

The organisation in our crosshairs on this particular adventure was Steelite International. Unlike the name suggests, Steelite International is a world-leading manufacturer of award-winning crockery and tableware, based in England's pottery district and with over a 100 year history.

Steelite International have just over 1,100 staff, export to over 140 countries worldwide and have been accused of changing the way chef's plate food, for the better. They produce around 18.5 million pieces a year and go through enough glaze to fill 207 Olympic sized swimming pools annually.

Last year the company had a turnover of £117 million, making it their seventh year of consecutive record-breaking growth. Their youngest employee is 17, the oldest is 69 and a number of staff members have been recruited in their late 50s and 60s. 37% of their workforce is aged 50 and over.

At the beginning of the process, long rolls of clay are called 'pugs'

At the beginning of the process, long rolls of clay are called 'pugs'

Age Positive Initiatives

The plan was for Fiona and I to have a cuppa and an in-depth chat about age in the workplace with Louise Griffin (Group HR Director) before being taken on our very own tour of the factory for a couple of hours.

However, like clay, the malleability of all involved was tested on the day when Louise became held up in a meeting that had overrun – turns out she was entertaining the Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent! Dan Stone (HR Officer) did a great job keeping the wheels turning until Louise could return. Later on, our factory tour with Sean Sutton (HR & Training Administrator) was fascinating. It was mind boggling to see all the stages involved in making something we use everyday without thinking about.

Overall it was fantastic to see an organisation with such a positive culture and high level of staff engagement. It's a credit to the HR and Executive team to have cultivated such a thriving environment in difficult economic times, while leading the way by placing so much value on their older workers with oodles of expertise and skills to pass on to new staff.

The kiln doing it's job at 1,288 degrees c

The kiln doing it's job at 1,288 degrees c

On behalf of older workers, we applied the heat. Here's what came out

When we enquired about the reasons behind why Steelite International is leading the way in terms of managing an ageing workforce, Louise explained that because they have an ageing workforce they have no choice but to think differently. Due to a variety of reasons, certain industries (such as manufacturing, transport and financial services) are having to address the needs of an older workforce sooner than others.

Louise went on to say that when she was first asked to talk about their age friendly initiatives at a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Economic Growth Conference in 2013, she had to spend time working out what to talk about.

“I actually sat there and thought I don’t know what we do differently for older workers because it’s what we do for everyone. It’s just a way of life at Steelite.”

Good company culture is one of the essential ingredients Louise talks about for getting the best from an ageing workforce. She admits it hasn’t been easy but over the years they have managed to shift away from a ‘them and us’ culture to a much more open and equal way of working. When she first started at the company, the managers all wore white coats on the shop floor. There was a culture of the boss speaking and the staff just doing as they were told.

However now the white coats are gone and they have established a group of Employee Champions who are volunteers, not union reps, managers or supervisors. The Champions and HR meet monthly and talk about all sorts of things – Louise said she gets asked anything from ‘why can’t we have fruit pastels in the vending machines’ to ‘why do we do lung function tests’! She doesn’t mind as the programme, along with high visibility, approachability and an open door policy has resulted in a complete change in company culture, for the better.


The ceramics industry naturally appeals more to an older demographic, so a large percentage of Steelite International's job applicants are mature adults. This means they haven't needed to develop a specific strategy to attract over 50s to apply.

On the other hand, they are looking at ways to attract younger workers who want to benefit from the wisdom of older staff already in the company. Their incredibly supportive culture, options for career progression and informal mentor pairing with older workers makes it a surprisingly good choice for graduates and younger workers who want quality training and the chance to make their mark in a successful global business.

Steelite International do offer apprenticeships and graduate programmes with no upper age limit. When it comes to the new Apprenticeship Levy, Louise says she applauds the rationale but explains they can’t take someone on for the sake of ticking a box – it has to be about the actual business needs and workforce requirements.

A canal runs through the middle of the factory grounds

A canal runs through the middle of the factory grounds


One of the biggest training challenges for the HR team is keeping staff up-to-date with all aspects of legislation, especially Health and Safety. We heard stories about some staff doing the same job for 30 years, so when they started they were able to come to work in flip flops and eat lunch at their bench.

Now the rules have all changed and HR needs to ensure employees are not only adhering to the updated rules and regulations, but have the necessary skills and training to access and absorb the latest information - even though their job hasn’t technically changed.

These challenges will increase as more people are living and working for longer. In response to this, Steelite International offered all staff the opportunity to complete an NVQ from entry level up to Level 2 in English, Maths and ICT on company time. This has enabled employees to better access and understand the legislation and safety information applicable to them, plus given them the foundation skills and confidence to move to other parts of the business.

The organisation also understands the importance of succession planning and works with internal and external training providers to ensure the transfer of skills across the business and to the next generation. We saw a number of examples of intergenerational working, which once again wasn’t treated any differently to any other ways of working throughout the business.

Inside the warehouse, packed to the rafters

Inside the warehouse, packed to the rafters


Steelite International relies heavily on skills being passed down through generations. This has led to a number of initiatives being created to support people to work longer and stem the loss of valuable knowledge and experience.

We got the feeling the company operates like one big family, and Louise says good benefits and employee engagement also account for much of dedication shown by staff.

Older individuals are given the option of a phased retirement, going from full-time to part-time over a set period. In this industry, this is often referred to as 'run down days' which occur over the twelve months leading up to 'D day', although on occasion an employee has arrived at the end of their run down period, only to decide they don't want to go. The HR team then work with them and find a suitable arrangement to retain them within the organisation.

On the flip side there have been times when the company has had to ask retirees to return to work because their skills were so tremendous they couldn't be replaced. They usually say yes to return because they are so passionate about the organisation and once back, their responsibilities are likely to change but importantly they are able to help train new apprentices.

Other flexible working options such as job sharing have been utilised when there were two employees from the same department who were eligible to retire, didn't want to give up work but felt they couldn't commit to a full time schedule. They were delighted with the possibility of splitting the job between them, once again resulting in a win-win for them and the business.

Here you see incredibly experienced 'dippers' making it look easy.

Here you see incredibly experienced 'dippers' making it look easy.

Occupational Health is another area that the organisation finds extremely important when addressing any health issues that come about due to age. With their guidance and consultation, the company has invested in assistive technologies where required in order to retain workers and prepare for the future.

We witnessed first hand the success and appetite of older staff moving to new areas of the business. Dan told us that HR have employees coming in every week to get the list of internal vacancies. This confidence and eagerness to move up the ladder or shift sideways has been greatly enhanced by those who have pioneered job transitions before them. Having people all around the business leading by example and influencing others has a huge positive impact on retention.

Steelite International’s employee benefits programme goes a long way towards their high retention and low staff turnover metrics. Although there are no specific benefits aimed at over 50s, there are of course benefits that tend to be accessed primarily by older workers, such as pension related services and occupational health.

Interestingly the company offers childcare vouchers as a benefit however there is currently no equivalent emergency eldercare benefit scheme to help with care of elderly dependents. We subsequently did a bit of digging on this topic and found an article that says ‘although eldercare is potentially one of the UK’s fastest-growing employee benefits, relatively few employers offer it’. Instead Louise and Dan explained that flexible working options like job sharing and sabbaticals are explored when an employees’s circumstances change and they need to focus on being a carer – either to older parents or grandchildren. It’s presented as an option as oppose to a benefit.

Another aspect we found interesting when discussing benefits relating to retirement was that the company’s pension scheme provides them with an IFA free of charge – and that individual currently addresses all aspects of preparing for retirement, the financial and the non-financial. Given the myriad of (often complex and personal) topics in this arena we are keen to find out more about how this is performed – this may call for a separate blog post…

To cap it all off, Steelite have an award-winning personal development and company culture programme called "Stepping Up To The Plate" (naturally) and a corresponding awards night each year. This further reinforces the company’s values and recognises and rewards employees for going above and beyond in a world of well made crockery.

Breaking the mould: real examples

Bill started as a 'Maker' in the Dish Cell Department in 1987 but when issues with his health affected his output, HR worked with him to find an alternative role. He's now a proud Health and Safety Standards Assessor. His transferred knowledge, skills and 30 years of experience make him the ideal 'eyes and ears' on the factory floor.

Ann White worked as a 'Pinner' in the Glazing Department for 26 years and in her own words, said she used to “hang her brain on a nail” outside the factory door when she started each shift. But life changed radically for Ann at 59 when she had her 'renegade moment'! A combination of internal training opportunities, encouragement, a mentor and professional training provided Ann with the opportunity to move from factory floor to management. She’s now a team leader in charge of the cleaning team and has absolutely no plans of giving up work. Ann has become a pin-up for older workers and was featured in Part 3 of the Guardian’s ‘The new retirement’ series by Amelia Hill.

Ann White, the pin-up for older workers, at her desk

Ann White, the pin-up for older workers, at her desk

Many years after obtaining a degree in Geology and subsequently becoming a computer programmer, Anne Polding (now 52) joined Steelite International's IT Department in 2000 as a PC Support Analyst. She had always been interested in training so the company agreed to sponsor her to become a qualified teacher. At this stage she could have chosen to leave the business and work in a school however she was invited to join the HR Department. Anne took the leap and now designs and delivers in-house training programmes as their Training Officer. A by-product of her new role is that it exposes her to staff in all areas of the business and showcases her as living proof that it can be done – it is possible for older workers to change, grow and advance.

Ann Polding at her desk, inspiring everyone through out the business to continue learning

Ann Polding at her desk, inspiring everyone through out the business to continue learning

Louise's advice to other businesses and HR teams

  • Be very aware of conscious and unconscious bias when it comes to age. Actively recruit older workers because of the skills and experiences they can bring, not because of their age. For example, during the recruitment process, try to remove all information that refers (directly or indirectly) to age, such as the year associated with previous roles or extensive work history that’s no longer relevant. It becomes simply about matching skills to the job. 

  • Work with the people and skills you already have and embrace the changes of your demographic make-up to ensure your future employees (young and old) have the necessary skills and experience to meet current and future business requirements.

  • Have regular and open discussions with older employees about their desires and expectations as they approach traditional retirement age as this can greatly enhance long term strategies.

  • Find ways to inspire and encourage older employees to try something new – the sad situation is that most people who have been doing the same job for a long time think that’s going to be it. And when they do retire it’s because there isn’t anything else to do. This cycle needs to be interrupted for the good of the employee, the business, and the community at large. 

  • Set systems up so the right things happen by default - it’s about getting the message across rather than having a policy.

  • Like it or not, the numbers show that you’ll have no choice about having to address the needs of an ageing workforce. Don’t treat age as a barrier or challenge but as a reality and opportunity.

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We’ll leave you with Louise's final quote:

“It’s like old books – you wouldn’t burn a library down with all that knowledge would you, so why would you want to dispose of an older workforce?”

We couldn't agree more.

Thank you to everyone at Steelite International for your kind hospitality and opening your doors to a couple of curious startup founders from down south.

We’re excited to be working with such a forward thinking and fun-loving organisation.

Until next time, 

Caroline & Fiona

//All images © 2019 Caroline Bosher