· Features

The benefits of employing older apprentices

With an ageing population and no default retirement age, people are working longer than ever before. But there is potential in taking on older people as apprentices that often goes unnoticed.

The Conservative government wants to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020. Break it down, and that’s more than two apprenticeships per minute from now until the next election. Even factoring in the 2.2 million apprenticeships delivered last term, that’s an ambitious figure.

The UK is also faced with a general skills crisis. It’s forecast that 13 million new jobs will be created by 2020, but there will only be seven million young people leaving school. So, who will fill these places?

One answer several bodies, economists and academics would give is: later life workers. With people aged over 50 comprising 29% of the UK’s economically active demographic, this seems a more than sensible suggestion. Older workers are likely to have skills that younger workers don’t, such as social, communication and management skills and a bigger picture understanding of how an organisation works.

They typically have a clearer idea of what they want out of a job and how long they’re likely to want to do it for. Though they may want to work part-time or job share, the discretionary effort that often comes as part and parcel of this kind of flexible working should not be overlooked.

And the evidence firmly suggests those in later life want to continue working. A January YouGov poll showed that around half of non-retired over-50s want to still be working between the ages of 65 and 70, and only 15% of non-retired over-50s said they would want to stop work altogether between ages 60 and 65.

“If you ask someone to picture an apprentice they’ll more than likely conjure up an image of a school leaver,” says Alison Fuller, the Institute of Education’s director of research and development, and the researcher behind Do Adult Apprenticeships Work?, the first academic study on older apprentices. “It’s a missed opportunity if a large proportion of the workforce’s capacity to learn is underestimated. It’s important that opportunities are available for the individual, the labour market and the wider economy.”

“At 40 to 50 you’re going to have another 25 years in work, so it’s still very important to keep learning, keep developing and remain happy in your career,” agrees Fiona Aldridge, assistant director for development and research at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). “And people in the later life age bracket have labour market experience in a way that a young school leaver hasn’t.”

“Someone at 21 may not know where they’ll be in five years,” adds Rachael Saunders, Age At Work director at Business in the Community. “An older employee will be much more honest with you. They’ll have a better ability to project forward and discuss what they can offer and what they want to do.”

Two companies cited by Fuller and Saunders as very much recognising the benefits of taking on older apprentices are Barclays Bank and a transport company Fuller has worked with (which can’t be named due to ethical protocols).

Saunders explains the business rationale at Barclays: “There was a very clear business case,” she says. “Barclays found a lot of its customers are much more comfortable discussing their finances with someone of a similar age. They understand your life and your commitments; they might have shared some life experiences and understand your priorities.”

Fuller’s example meanwhile, found that apprenticeships for older workers were ideal for upskilling its workforce when younger applicants were not applying for roles.

“They were concerned about where their skills were going to come from,” she explains. “So they looked actively at how older workers could develop multi-skills that could help the company manage its productivity and financial situation. They initiated a strategy of developing their older workforce instead of having staff passively waiting for retirement.”

The business case for many types of companies encouraging older as well as younger people into their apprenticeship schemes seems, then, fairly clear cut. And on the face of it, the UK is doing pretty well at this.

More than 44,000 workers over 45 undertook apprenticeships in 2013 to 2014. While this comprises only 10% of all apprenticeships, it’s impressive compared to the 300 later life apprentices 10 years ago.

However, there has been some criticism levelled at these seemingly encouraging stats. Some have countered that a large proportion of these ‘older apprenticeships’ don’t in fact represent ‘true apprenticeships’, but are rather rebadged on-the-job training.

For Fuller, this means the wider UK economy is missing a trick – or rather missing out on a large pool of eager, conscientious and able prospective employees.

“When people are given access to apprenticeship schemes within their current employment, there is a danger that there may be a lack of significant learning,” she says. “You can get issues of people getting qualifications that simply establish prior learning and don’t actually push them in a whole new field or take them on a real learning journey where the end result will be a completely refreshed role with a new skillset.”

“There are criticisms that some apprenticeships are essentially people being skilled up for roles they’re already doing,” agrees Aldridge. “Apprenticeships aren’t training programmes, they’re jobs with training. There’s a very clear difference.”

Examples such as the transport company cited above prove, however, that apprenticeships for existing older staff can genuinely help the UK meet a growing demand for workers, and ensure strong skill levels.

Unfortunately the language and incentives surrounding apprenticeships still stand in the way of schemes for older people, whether they’re new or existing employees, as well as a persisting cultural stigma towards older members of society in general.

While the introduction of age discrimination policies and the government’s abolition of the retirement age take us in the right direction, the Conservative party’s current dialogue surrounding their apprenticeship targets still appears to be focused only on school leavers, with slogans such as ‘helping young people get along’.

“Funding trends are towards reducing the availability for the older workforce and concentrating on a younger age group,” Fuller warns. “They have prioritised opportunities for younger people now. Older people already in work are less of a priority than younger people who haven’t got a job.”

But the government isn’t the only party with sway here. Employers can do a lot to support older people to stay in work and facilitate a broader cultural shift.

“We need a way of talking about later life working that isn’t stigmatised,” says Saunders. “The way we talk about race and gender has changed hugely. But I can still call someone an old codger and get away with it. This kind of language in relation to race or gender isn’t acceptable, so why is it for older workers? Being old isn’t an insult.”

Minister of state for pensions Ros Altmann is in firm agreement. Her recent government report – A New Vision For Older Workers – is recommended reading for all employers.

“We all – employers and workers alike – need to challenge these preconceptions,” she says. “This may be by tackling age discrimination, providing training and development for older workers or challenging media depictions of older people, to name but a few. Businesses must look at the facts and plan for an ageing workforce. Most people are just not ‘old’ in their fifties and sixties anymore. Nor necessarily at ages beyond that either. They should remain open-minded to recruiting and training older staff, as well as considering flexible working.”

One of the largest challenges – or perhaps, assumptions – facing later life apprenticeships is the idea that older workers will demand more flexible conditions.

Altmann’s suggestions include mid-life career reviews, training for line managers to be more understanding of an older workforce and the creation of more flexible working environments to ensure this is available to older workers in the same way as for those with young families.

“Of course it can be easier for some employers to have regimented, standard working,” she says. “Very often, the larger businesses with HR departments may be best equipped for flexibility, but all employers could have conversations with their staff to best understand their needs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but it is worth taking a close look at what other companies in the same industry are doing to adapt.”

NIACE’s Aldridge believes that there are a variety of stakeholders responsible for ensuring the later life labour market is kept inspired, motivated and retained. 

“There are three investors in apprenticeships,” she explains. “The government, the employer and the apprentice. If the pay is a liveable wage and the conditions are appealing then we are more likely to see older workers re-entering and remaining in the labour market naturally.”