Skills reform needed to address longer working lives, MPs say

7 Apr 2017 By Emily Burt

Employers and government must commit to upskilling older workers ahead of labour shortages, recommends Skills Commission report

A series of fundamental reforms are needed UK-wide in order to tackle the labour force and skills gap challenges presented by people leading longer working lives, a cross-parliamentary report from the Skills Commission has said.

Demographic trends suggest that between 2014 and 2022 there will be 700,000 fewer people aged between 16-49, and 3.7 million more people aged between 50 and the state pension age. This will have a significant impact on the labour market, the report warned. By 2022, there are expected to be 12.5m job vacancies with only 7m younger people available to fill them, creating a significant argument for upskilling older workers.

Report chair Peter Mayhew-Smith said older workers constituted the single largest pool of untapped potential in Britain. “With the challenges that lie ahead it is crucial we build on their wealth of skills, experience and collective wisdom,” he said.

Pressures on the labour market are set to be further exacerbated by the rise of the state pension age and the UK’s decision to leave the EU, meaning employers need to commit to adapting their working policies now to avoid a crisis in the future.

The report – Spotlight On…Lifelong Learning for an Ageing Workforce – flagged up a wide range of reforms to tap into older working talent, with 16 recommendations for change inside and outside the workplace. The upskilling of older workers is at the heart of the report, which outlines practical recommendations for realising the government’s commitment to lifelong learning.

Several recommendations focus on opening apprenticeships and training opportunities to the wider workforce, and ensuring learning content is delivered across generations. “Learning providers should rethink the content, marketing and delivery of courses to improve their appeal to older workers,” states the report. “They should also expand their offerings to include soft skills training and confidence-building workshops.”

Other suggestions include the implementation of mentoring schemes alongside apprenticeship programmes so the younger generation can benefit from the expertise of older workers. However, the report stresses that older workers should not be treated as an isolated unit within the wider workforce.

“It’s particularly heartening to see the emphasis on providing training around age discrimination and undertaking effective career reviews across teams without singling out older workers,” said Annette Cox, director of employment policy research at the Institute for Employment Studies.

“We should not underestimate the amount of support that line managers may need in this area. Discussing age-related change to capabilities and needs in the workplace can feel like one of the last great taboos for many people.”

The Skills Commission also called on the government to follow up on its £40m commitment to lifelong learning in the Spring Budget, including a recommendation that the Department of for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions collaborate in signposting funding and supporting recruitment pilots tailored towards older workers, as well as appointing a minister for lifelong learning. 

“This report highlights the training gaps which badly need reforming for our lifelong learners, and I am pleased to see the BEIS Select Committee and Spring Budget recognise this,” Barry Sheerman MP, co-chair of the Skills Commission, said. “We can be more productive as a country and fill skills gaps if we invest in lifelong learning and returning to work support, and by making upskilling the norm at work.”

The report follows an earlier call to action in which experts urged employers to actively recruit older workers to supplement a likely talent shortage as a result of Brexit. CEO of Aviva Life Andy Briggs said employers should aim to bring one million over-50s into the workplace by 2022 to address the impending skills gap, a target he described as “ambitious but necessary”.

“In the context of potential reductions to labour supply from sources such as immigrant workers over the next few years, employers need to be thinking much more seriously about workforce planning, and working out how to make best use of a talent pool with high levels of experience,” Cox said. 

“Some employers are already ahead of the game and have shown lots of creative thinking around how to accommodate individual needs of older workers, as IES case studies for the CIPD last year have demonstrated. Others have not yet confronted some of the challenges and opportunities in this field.”

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