New Skills For Older Workers?

Everyone seems to agree, a skilled and trained workforce is a pre-requisite for a successful economy. New skills and training are good for individuals too.

Everyone seems to agree, a skilled and trained workforce is a pre-requisite for a successful economy. New skills and training are good for individuals too.

One might imagine that few of us need to be persuaded. People with no qualifications are twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a qualification - less than half of people aged 25-64 with no qualifications had jobs compared with 85.3 per cent of those with a degree or above, according to the 2011 census.

If you want a job, be sure you have a skill, but sometimes, opportunities are just not practically available for the older worker, who may be reluctant to be saddled with debt even if loans were available, which often is not the case.

It may seem obvious, but training people increases productivity. In fact the pay-back from training shown in productivity, multiplies investment by three to one. (A one per cent increase in training days leads to a three per cent increase in productivity. )

The case for training does not stop there however. Education and training support national economies, improve employment levels and contribute to more human happiness.

An ILO report for the G20 nations glows: "...good education and good, relevant training, ...empowers people to develop their full capacities and to seize employment and social opportunities, raises productivity, both of workers and of enterprises, contributes to ... innovation and development, encourages ... investment and job growth, lowers unemployment and underemployment... leads to higher wages... expands labour market opportunities and reduces social inequalities."

Despite training being truly a good thing, practices that might encourage training of older members of the workforce, are not common in the UK. Funding is hard to get. Loans are not readily available and there are arbitrary cut off ages all over the system.

Often, people who are in work do not get the encouragement they need to follow a training course and there may be a measure of concern that training older workers "is not really worth it" because they may be close to retirement.

This seems nonsense. In a wide range of sectors and occupations, we are running short of the people we need to do the jobs that must be done to keep us running as an effective economy. Skills shortages range from nursing to skilled craftspeople in manufacturing, the list seems endless. Yet we continue to deny the older job seeker the chance to get back into work by updating his or her skills.

The talk of "career reviews" in mid-life will amount to little if the funds are not available to retrain people. The Government's Fuller Working Lives strategy is a monument mounted on a plinth marked "Retain, Retrain, Recruit," but in Fuller Working Lives: A Partnership Approach the relative weight given to each of these three elements seems unevenly distributed. There is praise of isolated examples of good practices by individual employers, but no evaluation of how widespread these are.

Devolving responsibilities to employers with appeals to their understanding of the "business case" is fine, but bigger national campaigns can have a bigger impact, engaging masses of employers (including SMEs) - as examples in a number of other European countries (Germany, France and Finland to mention three) have shown .

The worthy initiative of the Mid-life Career Review pilot, funded by BIS and led by the Learning and Work Institute with some 17 partners, supported reviews for 3,000 or so older workers. But this is a drop in the ocean compared with the demand for such reviews. The project remains what it always was, a pilot with, as far as I have been able to discern, no planned rolled out as a national programme.

Reality checks are needed. "76 per cent of businesses ...have a shortage of digital skills in their workforce, ranging from 52 per cent at a slight shortage to three per cent at a critical one," said a British Chambers of Commerce survey last month. Many older job seekers struggle through a lack of basic IT skills needed to complete even a job application whilst being denied funded training to take them to anything approaching an advanced level.

A recent report by the CIPD found that "...two decades of under-investment" had contributed to the UK falling behind our competitors in Europe and most OECD countries on key measures, including literacy and numeracy, learning and development and digital skills. (The UK lies fourth from the bottom on the EU's league table of participation in job-related adult learning, "with evidence showing a deterioration since 2007," say the writers.

One explanation for the skills problem is that employers have just not engaged apprentices nor trained their employees generally. Currently they can plug the gap by hiring EU workers but that option may soon be limited by Brexit, worsening the shortage.

Government policy has focused on an apprenticeship approach to training, but squeezing older adults into awkwardly fitting suits described as "older apprenticeships," may not be the answer. On the other hand, the encouragement for firms to fill apprenticeship places funded by the new Apprenticeship Levy could be a strong force for change.

It is a bit too early to be sure but the figure of 50,000 over 50 year old apprentices being in place in 2014 would be remarkable were it not also accompanied by concerns over whether these apprenticeships are genuine and robust. An assessment by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2014 suggested many employers were simply using "apprenticeships" as a thinly veiled format for standard job training for existing workers. Many existing apprenticeships for the over 50s were classed at the most basic level - confusingly known as "intermediate" - equivalent to roughly five GCSE passes.

One could ask what new skills such "apprenticeships" were offering to an older person and whether the tax payer was not simply being taken for a ride as large numbers of employers provided basic training in 'skills' such as flipping burgers, to employees on low pay and conditions. One would be entitled to expect more from a "cutting edge" learning revolution.

On the other hand, if a 'bolder apprenticeship' format, (using the now well-known Barclays Bank terminology) can be offered that genuinely provides an older person with a new career opportunity by giving them a chance to acquire real skills, this would be a positive development. One would like to be upbeat and there will doubtless be some good examples to quote, but the training challenge is huge and we may only be scratching the surface at this point.


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