From education to employment

Exclusive Interview with Stephen McNair

In light of this week’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) report on an older workforce, FE News spoke to Professor Stephen McNair, Director at the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, based at the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE).

“There is very little in the report I would disagree with. We published a similar result four years ago and got a lot of stick from many of people, including a fair number of trade unionists, who said that this can”t be true. I remember arguing with a shop steward who said “I”ve been a shop steward for over twenty years and I”ve never known an employee who didn”t want to leave at the first opportunity”. To which I replied, “the 80% of the population in a nationally representative survey say the reverse!

“People like work. Older people like work more than younger people like work. I felt the heading of the TUC press release was a bit dramatic. I don”t think the majority of people over 50 feel “dumped on the scrap heap”. I think there are quite a few people who feel very bitter about the way they”re treated in the workforce.

“There is no doubt, age discrimination is a very serious issue. It’s particularly serious for those who find themselves out of work after the age of 50, because the barriers of getting back in are enormous. We know from our work on incapacity benefits, for instance, that once you”re on incapacity benefit and you”ve been there for three months, you”re more likely to die than to get a job.

“That is partly to do with age discrimination. Somebody you know who’s doing the job competently, who is familiar with his or her way around the organisation, has a lot of value. But on the other hand, most of the people who are unemployed after the age of 50 have been squeezed out by redundancies, reorganisations, etc. They”re often the least well qualified and with the narrowest experience.

“There is a great deal of underemployment of the over fifties. Employers start assuming that people are coming up to retirement and aren”t going to want new challenges. The result is that work becomes less interesting to people and in due course they get bored and go away.

Speaking on the forthcoming age discrimination legislation, Professor McNair said: “It’s already having some impact on the climate, so the real thing that’s changing employers behaviour is shortage of people. There just aren”t enough people around to do the work. Employers are introducing flexible working, caring leave, part-time working.

“I think there are two big questions about the UK interpretation of the directive.

“First is the default retirement age. It is not clear whether having one is consistent with European directives. That is being tested in the European courts at the moment, in a Spanish case. My interpretation of that consultation is that government bowed to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

“Second is the arrangements for funding of education and training. If ministers and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) say the priority is 16-19 education, which they do, then it becomes the case that there is indirect discrimination going on in FE.

“We know that people over 50 are much less likely to participate in FE, and FE colleges on the whole make absolutely no attempt to go out and recruit them, particularly since they know that unless they sign up for a full level 2, they”re not going to get support from the LSC.

“What we have is a system that systematically discriminates against older people, and the UK government at the moment says “that’s alright”. Whether that proves to be the directive, requires someone to take it through the courts, or take a judicial review”.

With thanks to Professor McNair for his time.

Vijay Pattni.

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