Surprise in store... the apprentices with a lifetime of experience to put to work

They might have been designed for the young, but Sarah Freeman meets the over-60s who are signing up to apprenticeships in their droves.

After the weekend’s snow and treacherous driving conditions made many stay indoors, the carpark at Booths supermarket is busier than usual for a Monday morning.

Inside, it’s business as usual for Chrissee Platt, who joined the family-run firm three years ago. Having just returned from a week’s holiday there’s much to catch up on and, in between checking on the dozen or so customers in the supermarket’s tea room and ensuring the new sandwich counter is well-stocked, she’s also halfway through an in-store apprenticeship.

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Investment in old-style apprenticeships has been one of the Government’s main thrusts in tackling growing youth unemployment. Yesterday, Vince Cable was again championing the course as a raft of big name companies came out to support National Apprenticeship Week. However, Chrissee isn’t fresh out of school. She’s 62 and one of a growing band of older apprentices.

“It’s been a complete eye-opener,” she says. “With any job you tend to stick in your own section, but the apprenticeship has given me a chance to see how the entire business runs. We have to work through various exercises, from monitoring specific product sales to looking at how price promotions work. There’s a really range of ages here and that’s what’s good about it. There are people like me with a lot of life experience, to youngsters who have just left school.

“For older people finding work can be hard. I’ve got a computer at home, but I know a lot of people have completely missed out on how much has changed with technology, they feel out of the loop. Apprenticeships get your mind working, but they also make you feel like a useful member of the company. I know that when people talk about apprenticeships they think of young people, but if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.”

The launch of apprenticeships for older workers is not an entirely selfless act by Booths. Research shows that they increase employee loyalty and therefore help to reduce to staff turnover.

“Booths policy has always been to employ the right person for the right job regardless of age,” says store manager Atholl Robinson, who has worked for the company for 35 years.

“Our apprenticeships tend to take about a year to complete and are tailored to individual roles whether that be the retail side of the business or security and loss protection.

“We get a lot of applications from older people who are looking for a lifestyle change and they can bring an awful lot to the business.

“However, you can’t just hand them a uniform and expect to get the best from them. Apprenticeships are one way of saying the company is willing to invest time and money in them. I guess it’s about a sense of worth.”

Last year the Government injected £1.4bn into a skills training scheme in the hope of tackling the problem of youth unemployment, but it seems one of the main groups to benefit have in fact been the over-60s.

Figures released toward the end of last year showed there has been an 18 per cent rise in apprenticeships begun by 18-year-olds and take up by the 19 to 24 age group increased by 22 per cent. However, the numbers of over-60s enrolling on apprenticeships soared by 878 per cent from 400 in 2009-2010 to 3,910 in 2011. During the same periond, around 40 over 60s successfully completed Booths apprenticeship.

In the light of unemployment figures, which showed the number of young jobless had topped the million mark, critics have complained the cash has been, albeit unintentionally, misdirected.

However, with the abolition of the default retirement age, older workers are increasingly making their presence felt in the workplace and many companies, initially slow to embrace their maturing workforce, are now looking to apprenticeships as a way of retraining existing staff.

As of last month there were more than 885,000 past the state pension age working either full or part-time in the UK and with over 55s are predicted to account for a third of the population by 2025, that figure is only set to increase.

“I worked as a florist before I joined Booths,” says 52-year-old Beverley Mulvaney, who works in the back offices and has just completed a year-long management apprenticeship. “When I left school I went straight into work rather than going to college or university. Enrolling on an apprenticeship can be a little daunting because it forces you out of your comfort zone.

“I don’t have any great desire to rise through the ranks, I’m happy with the job I’ve got, but it does show that you’re never too old to learn.”

At any one time up 10 staff in each of Booths’ 28 stores are enrolled on apprenticeships and it’s a blueprint many other companies are now set to follow.

Skillset, in partnership with the National Apprenticeships Service, has pledged to work with 300 business in industries such as fashion, media and design to deliver 500 apprenticeships with the first places to be offered in September.

Many are small firms who will be able to apply to the Government of a £1,500 incentive payment when they take on their first apprentice. Bolstering the Government’s announcement, British Airways has announced plans to launch two new schemes recruiting 200 people in addition to the 340 students already undertaking apprenticeships or college courses.

Hilton Worldwide is also recruiting 50 trainees to its Chef Apprenticeship Academy and BAE Systems is bringing 265 apprenticeships across the UK.

This time the emphasis is clearly on younger recruits, but back at Booths the training package is the same regardless of age.

“All of our apprentices are developed together, so a 16-year-old would work alongside a 60-year-old,” says Atholl.

“Their knowledge and skills complement each other. An older worker will be more experienced and at ease with customer service and the younger generation may bring more knowledge of technology. We are in a very fortunate position in that we don’t have to advertise too widely. Whenever a vacancy arises we always have a lot of applications from a lot of good people.

“Setting targets to employ a certain amount of people over 60 wouldn’t be the right way to go, but a multi-generational workforce is the way forward.

“We offer the same career opportunities to all generations. Of course not everyone has the sights set on becoming a manager, but knowing they can develop their career when they are in their 60s is something they appreciate.”

For Chrissee that has meant working with Jason Dowling, who after a weekend job at the supermarket while still at school is now employed full-time at the Ilkley store.

“It’s really hard for a lot of people leaving school now,” says the 20-year-old. “There is so much instability that often you have to take short-term contracts and if you end up having to drive 20 or 30 miles into work just the cost of petrol can be crippling.

“I do feel lucky to have a permanent job, but it’s good to work with people who are much older than I am. You learn a lot from just being here.”

Chrissee hopes to complete her apprenticeship within the next six months, but she suspects she will be at Booths much longer.

“I can’t ever imagine retiring,” she says. “Like most people I have a mortgage to pay and besides, I do think working keeps you young.”