From education to employment

‘Returnerships’: A new diversification tool for the economy

Nichola Hay

In a bid to combat economic inactivity and encourage older workers to stay or re-enter the workforce, Jeremy Hunt announced the launch of the ‘returnerships’ initiative, and apprenticeships have been identified as a key tool within this initiative. These will not only help upskill and reskill older workers efficiently, but also help foster a more diverse and synergistic workforce.

Figures show the most popular age for early retirement is 60 years old. In fact, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in June last year found that the number of economically inactive people in their 50s and 60s has increased by more than a quarter of a million since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of this on the economy cannot be understated. Fewer workers mean less money paid in taxes and more welfare support required by the state. It is also a significant contributor towards our skills shortage challenges.

In a bid to combat this and encourage older workers to stay or re-enter the workforce, Jeremy Hunt announced the launch of the ‘returnerships’ initiative during his Spring Budget earlier this month; a £60 million funding boost aimed at bringing older workers back into work.

Targeted at adults over the age of 50 who wish to return to work after a break or are seeking a career change, the returnerships could prove to be a great new way for businesses to upskill and diversify their workforce.  

The reality of apprenticeships

As part of the Chancellor’s new initiative, the returnerships will bring together three programmes, including Skills Bootcamps, apprenticeships, and sector-based work academy programmes (SWAPS). SWAPs are effectively a rebrand of the previously named sector-based work academy programme, meanwhile we are all aware of apprenticeships and their ability to retain, retrain, and upskill the workforce.

One of the biggest myths about apprenticeships is that they are only available to young people leaving school. This misconception has caused many businesses and HR leaders to underestimate the potential of apprenticeship programmes to not only attract new talent of a range of ages and skills, but also upskill their current staff at different seniority levels.

However, in reality, whether it is stay-at-home parents looking to re-enter the workforce, economically inactive people, or recent graduates, an apprenticeship can create an opportunity for those candidates who may have never applied for a role due to their perceived lack of relevant qualifications, regardless of their age.

With a new focus on the older population, apprenticeships can now act as an even stronger boost for employers, as they will have the option to upskill both young and “experienced” talent, giving them the knowledge and assistance they need to find a direct route back into the workforce.

Though supporting more over 50s back into the workplace will need significantly more skills investment long term, this is a great step towards recognising and utilising the true potential of apprenticeships and training to upskill and enhance a larger fraction of the UK workforce and economy.

How can returnerships benefit businesses and the economy?

By encouraging older workers to return to the work, businesses and the economy have the potential to benefit hugely. A more diverse workforce can be recruited by organisations, where different skills, ages, and backgrounds can be accounted for. A synergistic, and more inclusive working environment can also be created, where younger workers can share new knowledge about topics such as the latest technology, while older workers can help enhance the workplace with their multiple years of experience.

It is also important to note that apprenticeships under the returnerships scheme will have a relatively accelerated nature compared to apprenticeships for younger people, as they will recognise prior learning and experience, making upskilling easier.

By hiring and upskilling older workers through returnerships, businesses can also benefit from a fresh perspective, where new hires can bring their knack for problem solving skills, gained from decades of previous experience, and resilience for tackling stressful situations.

How will this initiative benefit the workforce?

Through returnerships, job seekers and re-entrants can reframe their CV gaps and access new opportunities. Not only can a returnership offer a chance to upskill in new industries and technologies, but it can also help capitalise on  transferable skills. And if apprentices are considering a significant career change, a return to work programme can offer a window into how a new industry operates. 

Returner apprenticeship programmes can also create opportunities for those candidates who may never have applied for a role due to their lack of direct experience or specific knowledge or expertise, giving them another chance at having a career.

Final thoughts

In light of the persistent struggle of a skills gap, the introduction of returnerships puts a new focus on the abilities of the older population making apprenticeships and training an even more effective tool for hiring a more diverse, experienced, and skilled workforce. This in turn will give people over the age of 50 a fresh perspective with regards to kickstarting a new career, try new things, and gain new skills.

By Nichola Hay MBE, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy, BPP

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