Lucie Mitchell explores apprenticeships for older people as a way of addressing skills shortages, age discrimination and the growing appetite for changing careers in later life.
There are more people putting off retirement and working longer than ever before. Yet many older workers often get overlooked for apprenticeships, even though the UK is facing a chronic skills shortage and there are many over 50s looking to gain new skills, retrain or return to work after a career break.
There are, in fact, a range of reasons why employers should consider offering apprenticeships to older workers, remarks Alison Fuller, professor of vocational education and work and pro-director for research and development at the UCL Institute of Education. “Older workers have a willingness and ability to learn new skills; many still have career ambitions and wish to progress; they add to the diversity of the apprentice population in the organisation; and they bring different perspectives and mature attitudes to the ‘learner group’.”
Despite this, apprenticeships are still primarily thought of as a career route for younger people. According to a survey in 2018 by the Department for Education, almost half of all apprentices were between 19 and 24 years old, while 12% were aged between 45 and 54, and just 3% were over 55 years old.
“While apprenticeships are more often attributed to school leavers and those at the beginning of their working lives, employers should not discount the benefits of offering apprenticeship opportunities to older applicants,” comments Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula. “Encouraging older workers to participate in apprenticeships could be a great way to make use of an invaluable resource and address the ongoing skills shortage at the same time.”
Iain Heath, head of emerging talent at HSBC, adds that it makes good sense to advertise apprenticeships to older as well as younger workers. “A diverse age profile in your apprentice population can bring in a range of valuable perspectives and experience, gained professionally and through life in general.”
Taking on older apprentices can also be a way for employers to show they value older workers and are not discriminating against them in terms of training and career opportunities, adds Fuller.
Barclays’ Bolder Apprenticeship programme is aimed at people aged over 24, with no upper age limit, and seeks to create jobs for older people through retraining. The bank has so far recruited 73 apprentices aged over 50, who have each contributed £18,000 to the bank’s net productivity gain over the course of the programme.
“The difficulties older workers face in re-entering the workforce should be recognised and challenged,” remarks Claire Findlay, head of apprentices at Barclays. “Once out of work, older workers face a much tougher task to find the opportunities to get back into full employment again. We believe that age or social circumstances shouldn’t be a barrier or deciding factor in finding a viable route to employment.”
Opening up their apprenticeship scheme to a wider scope of workers has proved to be extremely beneficial, she adds. “The more diversity we have amongst our staff ensures we have a wider skill set. Older workers are able to bring a wealth of life and work experience to their role from day one, offering a unique perspective to their learning process. The more we invest in the skills of diverse workers, the better it is for our business’ development.”
One of the challenges associated with later life apprenticeships is changing the perception that apprenticeships are mainly aimed at school leavers. This can make it difficult for employers to attract older workers to their schemes, but there are a number of approaches that can be taken to overcome this.
“Encouraging successful older apprentices to share their stories through case studies and profiles will often have more of an impact than cleverly-crafted corporate text,” advises Heath. “It’s also important to remember that older applicants will be attracted by the things that appeal to younger applicants too – a good salary, positive culture, opportunities for progression and great line managers.”
Employers must also ensure that all marketing for apprenticeships is inclusive and inter- generational, while focusing on the opportunity to learn new skills and experience personal growth. “Offer clarity about the structure, content and outcomes of the apprenticeship so there is a clear line of sight for development and progression, including, for example, the kinds of roles that an apprenticeship will enable apprentices to gain,” adds Fuller. “Employers also need to recognise prior learning, so the skills and knowledge older workers bring into the apprenticeship are acknowledged and valued.”
Finally, it goes without saying that employers should ensure their workplace remains inclusive, which will play a key role when looking to attract older apprentices, says Palmer. “An organisation’s reputation can have a big influence on applicants, and those with a professional and supportive workplace culture are more likely to appeal to older workers.”