Rescuing older workers from the post-COVID scrapheap


The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the UK’s economy into the deepest slump since quarterly records began, with the country officially entering a recession for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis in August last year.

After a 2.2% fall in the first quarter of 2020 and a historic 20.4% drop in the second, the COVID-19 recession is by far the deepest of the modern age.

Yet, it can still be easy to view these figures without considering the people behind them.

A consequence of any recession is a rise in unemployment, and the COVID-19 recession has been no different. With unemployment now at 1.7 million and a further 4.7 million people on furlough, 20% of the UK workforce is not fully active, and we expect this figure to grow as the furlough scheme winds down.


The impact of COVID-19 on older workers

While significant attention has been paid to young people impacted by the COVID-19 recession, there is another demographic within society who are also bearing the brunt of this crisis.

Data from the Office for National Statistics show that unemployment among 50-to-64-year-olds rose to 4.1% from October to December last year, the highest levels since 2014 following a 50% rise during the second lockdown. Most of these job losses are down to the immediate economic shock caused by COVID-19.

However, there are also long-term risks that older workers could be left on the scrapheap as we emerge from the pandemic.

The last twelve months have changed consumer behaviour for the foreseeable, with shoppers now prioritising online services. As such, employers are now prioritising candidates with digital skills capable of helping them prosper in the post-COVID-19 economy.

The combination of a demand for digital skills and the ongoing economic shocks caused by the pandemic could damage current and future career prospects for older workers, with the Learning & Work Institute recently warning that the UK is heading towards a catastrophic digital skills shortage disaster.


The importance of digital skills

HR and business leaders can tackle this looming unemployment crisis by offering their employees and new recruits digital skills training to futureproof their workforce and ensure that they are in the best place possible to respond to changing consumer behaviour caused by the pandemic. For example, could you train those who currently use Excel to use SQL or even Python?

Although this may sound like a short-term financial hit, it is also an investment that will more widely benefit the business. After all, new skills power new ways of working which in turn leads to new commercial opportunities.

Employers and HR leaders should also remember that older workers bring plenty of skills, knowledge and judiciousness attained from previous experiences. When combined with an up-to-date skillset and knowledge framework, there’s little reason why a long-serving employee should not outperform an external hire.


The power of referrals

HR teams and business leaders can also avert an unemployment crisis among older workers by changing their recruitment practices.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, referrals are one of the most effective ways for businesses to hire candidates from a specific age-group or background.

Referrals by a role’s industry peers tend to focus on a candidate’s real-world performance and role potential, rather than the polished veneer and CV-points that may sway an agency. And an invitation to apply can give confidence to those with the skills, but not necessarily the confidence or awareness of your role, to put their hat in the ring.

By seeking recommendations from specific people or networks, hiring managers can also seed roles and increase the chances of finding candidates with specific credentials and social demographics. Take, for example, the hundreds of networks for women in engineering. Connecting and engaging with these and other diverse groups will increase the likelihood of hiring skilled female and BAME workers.

If we want to avoid the latter third of our collective working loves to be blighted, we need to extend the same support that we extend to other groups needs to older workers. That means continuous in-work training, an awareness of the discrimination issues, and an active recruitment policy that’s focused on seeing potential - even for those at the other end of the employment cycle.

With the vaccine programme underway, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight, but the economic repercussions of the past twelve months will be with us for the foreseeable. The lockdowns have changed consumer behaviour and now we run a real risk of certain sections of society slipping through the cracks and into the horror of 1980s-style chronic unemployment.

We must futureproof our workforce and ensure that every worker, no matter their age, is given a helping hand through referrals and equipped with the digital skills needed to prosper in the post-COVID-19 economy.


Paul Naha-Biswas is CEO and founder of Sixley