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Older worker

Lifelong learning: unlocking the potential of older workers

Too many older workers are being denied training and progression opportunities. This doesn't just hold them back, but our whole economy.

Our Senior Evidence Manager, Emily Andrews, argues that helping older workers reach their full potential is key to improving productivity in the UK.

You wouldn't be very happy if your boss said you were going to spend the next 20 years of your career doing exactly the same thing: no development opportunities, no training, and no chance to learn new skills.

 But for many people in their 50s, this is a reality. Many years before reaching state pension age, too many people are being written off, denied access to the training opportunities that are offered to their younger colleagues. In some cases, people are writing themselves off - not realising that they have the capacity to learn new things, or that there might be value in doing so.

 The result is that we have one of the lowest levels of on-the-job training for older workers in the OECD, behind only Turkey and Slovenia

 We know that we need to change this - and the Centre for Ageing Better is working out how.

Why should businesses invest in training older workers?

In an age of high employment, the 'war for talent' is acute. At the moment, 61% of businesses say that at least one of their current vacancies is hard to fill, and 41% say it has become harder to fill vacancies over the last year. Brexit, whatever form it takes, is likely to only make this more acute. To create the skilled workforce they need, businesses are under increasing pressure to develop it themselves.

 'The productivity challenge' sounds technical, but it's pretty simple. As a country, we're working harder, but not smarter. We're working more hours than we were a decade ago, but each hour of work is producing the same amount of value as it did then. Considering the amount of technological change that’s taken place in the last ten years, that’s a real worry.

 If we put more time and investment into doing things differently, we might be able to shift this: getting more out of every hour worked, without having to work more hours. To work smarter, we need a more skilled workforce - who can automate tasks, do more high-value activities, and work out new ways of doing things.

 Older workers have to be part of this picture. By 2025, there will be around 1 million more workers over 50, and 300,000 fewer workers under 30. Increasingly, the older workforce is the workforce.

By 2025, there will be around 1 million more workers over 50, and 300,000 fewer workers under 30. Increasingly, the older workforce is the workforce.
What about small businesses?

Small businesses can find it harder to find resources to train their existing staff. But their need is just as acute as larger employers, if not more so. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 78% of small employers have at least one employee over 50. They are also facing skills shortages:almost half say they lack 'full proficiency' in their workforce.

Older workers hold the years and diversity of experience that small businesses need. Upskilling them to plug skills gaps can help those businesses avoid resource-intensive recruitment processes.

Clearly many small businesses are motivated to invest in skills: 30% of small business owners in 2017 said that they would consider investing in staff training to tackle skills shortages. And there is capacity in the system to help them do that. Currently £3bn of the funds collected via the apprenticeship levy has gone unspent - over 85% of the total. Small businesses can access this if larger, levy-paying organisations choose to transfer some of their funds.

That would help them train and retrain older workers as apprentices - which will work for some, but not everyone. That's why we think the Government should replace the Apprenticeship levy with a broader skills levy – so that it can benefit people at all ages and stages of their career.

What does good training for older workers look like?

In some cases, this problem will be solved by simply expanding what is already on offer to more people. But this will not always be suitable. Our upcoming evidence review on employment for older workers shows that older workers are best served by training which takes into account the skills and experience they already hold.

Trainers should also bear in mind that older workers may have been away from a classroom environment for a long time – if that’s how the training is delivered, they may need support to adjust. Career development and upskilling also doesn’t have to mean formal ‘training’ – supportive line management can make all the difference.

Our guide to being an age-friendly employer places ‘encouraging career development at all ages’ as one of the five key actions. We will be publishing a briefing soon on what works to support older people to retrain. In the mean time, if you have any experiences of being denied access to training – or of being encouraged to develop – we’d be keen to hear it.


Becoming an age-friendly employer

Read more
 Emily Andrews
Senior Evidence Manager