Jayne Dowle: Not-so-young apprentices could be way of the future

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I POPPED by to say hello to a friend the other day. Her husband must be six foot five and as broad as a barn door. He has had an interesting array of jobs over the years; builder, farmhand, club bouncer.

He wasn’t in when I called. He was at university, where I was surprised to learn that he is studying to become a nursery and foundation years teacher. He is the last person I expected to turn to infant teaching.

His reasons are simple though. He’s about to hit 50 and he wants a career which will take him through to eventual retirement without putting too much physical strain on a body exhausted by a lifetime of hard manual work. He also has three daughters, all of school age, so he certainly has the experience required.

He’s part of a growing trend amongst my friends and acquaintances. Our neighbour, for instance, left the steelworks about six years ago and now he’s a higher-level teaching assistant at my daughter’s school. He loves it, and the parents love him: a strong male role model in a community where sometimes, these are thin on the ground.

I wonder if Ros Altmann, the Government-backed business champion for older workers, wants these two individuals to be poster boys?

In her landmark report, A New Vision For Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit, she argues that we have to totally reassess our attitude towards older people at work. And before you think that this applies to someone else, not you, being “an older worker” creeps up on you quicker than you might think.

When you reach your forties, it is no longer a label which applies to someone else. It applies to you. When I updated my CV recently, I was shocked to tot up that I had been working as a journalist for more than 30 years, since I started out tipping off my local paper when I was a teenager for a few pounds a story.

I knew what I wanted to do then, and I’ve been lucky to have a career which is flexible and has allowed me to carry on working from home through two children and family caring responsibilities. Others are not so fortunate. We hear so much about the pressure that school-leavers are under to find employment or even establish a purposeful meaning to life. What do we hear though about the heart-thudding, stomach-churning anxiety of being 50 and realising that no-one wants to employ you?

It is a scenario which affects individuals across the social spectrum, from supermarket cashier to chief exec. What then, can be done about it? Dr Altmann makes three key recommendations: to encourage employers to retain older workers, to see more opportunities for retraining, whether that is upskilling in a current position or taking an entirely new direction in life, and she wants serious efforts to be made to recruit those who are in their later years.

On the recruitment front, I particularly like her revolutionary idea of apprenticeships for older people. What choice do those who want to change career or return to work after bringing up a family have? There are basically no opportunities available to make a switch once you reach a certain age. She would like to see the subsidised apprenticeship model for school-leavers developed specifically for older workers. Let’s not carried away, but this could be a dream come true for thousands.

All of the above makes sense, but it is perhaps the recruitment point which makes the harshest economic sense. By 2022, it is predicted that there will be 700,000 fewer people aged 16 to 49 in the UK – but 3.7 million more people aged between 50 and State Pension age. If the over-50s continue to leave the workforce in line with current patterns, we would suffer serious labour and skills shortages which could not be filled by immigration.

Put simply, if we don’t invest in older workers, our economy will suffer catastrophic consequences. What then, can be done? Dr Altmann recommends creating an official post which will cross all government departments to ensure that every policy which effects employment and the economy would take this into account. With the right person in charge, this would be a good move. With the wrong person in charge it could just end up being an opportunity for an ambitious politico to make their mark.

Whatever happens in Westminster, more importantly it is a matter which individual employers and those in charge of retention and recruitment in large organisations need to get their heads around. In some cases, this will require a serious mind-shift from human resources. It all cases, it will demand a change in hearts and minds; flexible working, and innovative policies to help those who need to take time out to look after their families, be this grandchildren or aged parents, or both.

Above all though, what we must remember is that no longer should older workers be seen as a problem. They must be embraced as the solution for a country – and an economy – which needs them like never before.