From education to employment

Using apprenticeships to empower the UK’s older workers

Steve Hill, External Engagement Director at The Open University

The average duration of the working life is getting longer, making the traditional model of linear career progression increasingly rare, often being replaced by the portfolio career.1 This creates a number of challenges to traditional employer expectations, and the structure of our education system.

However, greater fluidity of people between sectors and jobs should not be seen as a negative phenomenon. In a system where workers are fully supported with the necessary training and upskilling to make career changes, employers benefit from experienced, adaptable employees who are capable to deliver in new emerging fields such as digital technologies.

In the current environment, access to this talent is essential. Already, skills shortages are pressing on business leaders’ minds: 69 per cent of UK employers have expressed a lack of confidence in being able to fill their high-skilled job vacancies in the near future.2 If current trends continue, there will be a shortage of three million workers to fill 15 million high-skilled jobs by 2022, according to the government’s latest State of the Nation report.3 With this rise in demand, our efforts to empower older workers for full participation in the workforce are key to avoid stagnation in the economy.

Older workers make up a significant proportion of the UK total workforce, with almost 10 million people in employment in the UK who are over the age of 50, equivalent to 31 per cent.4 As our population ages, we must be better prepared to empower older employees, providing relevant and accessible skills training. Advanced economies like ours will have a growing pool of underused talent in our older demographic if we do not take action.

By committing to generating 3 million new apprenticeship starts by 2020, the government has made clear that it sees training as a remedy to our future workforce skills challenges. An important part of this strategy involves equipping young people with relevant skills which will help them to thrive in the workplace. Yet it is also extremely important that older workers are included in this solution. Upskilling for all ages will be essential, not only for individuals’ own success but also to businesses looking to secure the skills they need for future growth and productivity.

The idea of an apprentice typically brings to mind a young person, fresh from school or college. However a number of older workers are also undertaking this form of training. In fact there were 58,000 people between the ages of 45 and 59 who started an apprenticeship in 2015/2016, and 4,000 new apprentices over the age of 60.5

Education providers and businesses need to play their part in supporting this group of older workers through apprenticeship programmes, alongside the typically younger learners. Higher and degree apprenticeships have the potential to offer tremendous value to both individuals and employers alike, supporting career changes and boosting the skills which older workers bring to their role.

We can also champion the role that apprenticeship programmes have to play in unlocking the potential of an age diverse workforce. Knowledge-sharing and the various perspectives of different generations were identified as key benefits of the multigenerational workforce in a CIPD report into the topic.6 The exchange of expertise and skills can be enhanced through the creation of cohorts made up of apprentices of all ages, backgrounds and job titles. Study groups and projects have the potential to bring people together who may not otherwise have collaborated.

The government’s apprenticeship levy is being introduced in 2017 and under the levy rules, businesses can draw on funds to support employees of all ages through an apprenticeship programme. We hope that the government’s support will be key in promoting greater uptake of apprenticeships in general, but also by older workers. Education providers clearly also have a role in communicating the benefits that apprenticeships offer for all ages.

In supporting individuals to make career changes, and helping businesses to turn untapped talent into a productive and highly-skilled workforce, running higher and degree apprenticeship programmes for learners of all ages is one of the biggest opportunities open to edulogocation providers today.

Steve Hill is the External Engagement Director at The Open University

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