How can older workers be better supported to get back to work?

Lucie Mitchell on how employers and the Government can help older workers to switch careers and find a new job after Covid.

Laptop with CV on it depicting job search


The Covid pandemic has hit older workers particularly hard. According to a report by the Centre for Ageing Better, the number of over-50s claiming unemployment benefits almost doubled during the first lockdown, while one in four older workers have been furloughed. Plus, with unemployment rates expected to soar as employees come off furlough, even more older workers will be facing the prospect of redundancy.

“If 15% ultimately find themselves made redundant, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated, that would mean another 377,000 job losses among the over-50s,” states Jagdeep Soor, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better. “Older workers will also be disproportionately affected by redundancies, due to the impact of the pandemic, particularly in certain sectors that employ this cohort.”

For those older workers employed in sectors that have few job possibilities as a result of the pandemic, many may be feeling they have no choice but to change career – or risk being left behind in the wake of Covid.

There are schemes in place to provide support to younger people, such as Kickstart, but what support is out there for older workers to retrain and change career?

“There is limited skills provision specifically available or ‘ringfenced’ for older workers,” remarks Soor. “And there has been no strategic development of skills provision to identify sector-specific transferable skills or industry change, due to the decline in certain sectors in these unprecedented times.”

Preparing for radical change

Lucia Knight, midlife career consultant and MD of Midlife Unstuck, also feels that support for professional career changers at this stage of life is extremely thin on the ground.

“Standard offerings from outplacement firms are pitched at helping individuals spruce up their CV, dust down their interview outfits and get prepared to answer standard questions,” she comments. “It’s nowhere near enough to help an older worker figure out what skills they possess to take into the future, what skills the future will want from them and how to prepare themselves for radical change.”

What could employers do?

Employers could play a key role in providing age-specific support to older employees who are facing redundancy. For instance, they could signpost them to places that can help or provide the support to work through where people might go next if they are looking for a career change.

Knight argues that employers who decide to eject older workers could invest in more outplacement services that include advice from, or connections to, other older workers who have successfully changed careers. “That way, not only would older workers have more confidence and hope that they won’t get left behind, they would be better prepared for what lies ahead.”

Employers could also point older workers to the many free resources online or suggest options such as vocational training, says Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts. “The Government’s careers and skills training website is a good place to start. Also, for older workers who want to switch sectors, apprenticeships are an excellent way to pursue a new career and learn new skills at any age. There’s no upper age limit and they pay more than a state pension.”

Ruth Starsmeare, programme manager at Punter Southall and qualified life coach, believes employers have a big responsibility for older workers. However, in her experience, most do not offer much support. “It should be standard practice that employers look after all age groups on their payroll, but many just focus on the younger people as they see they have more years left of work.”

What should Government do?

Soor stresses it’s crucial nobody gets left behind because of their age. “At the moment, access to redundancy support varies widely depending on the scale of the redundancy and the willingness or ability of the employer to buy in support. Not everyone gets the same access to support, with those most in need of training often not receiving it.”

He suggests a number of ways the government can help to ensure support is offered to older workers who want or need to change careers. “There should be a consistent and clear message to employers, job coaches and employment support services that the over-50s are as entitled to support as younger workers. This messaging should be backed up with robust incentives and oversight of programmes to support the long-term unemployed, to ensure that older workers’ needs are being met.

“The government’s announcement of a broad programme of traineeship opportunities available to workers under 25 should be accompanied by support for all adults to retrain, including the over-50s,” he adds. “Finally, the government should invest in training that is tailored to older workers’ needs, to help them move back into work.”

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