Activity around training and apprenticeships to solve the much-lamented skills gap – both nationally and in the North East – has often focused on young people.
Government targets and funding in recent years have tended to be aimed at 16-24 year olds and revolve around the promotion of STEM subjects as a way of filling growing skills gaps in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, engineering, digital and health.
But why are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s so often overlooked as a solution to filling the skills gap?
Most of us know that nowadays a job is rarely for life. Similarly, it is now more common for people to change their careers as they face the prospect of working to a far greater age than their parents and grandparents did.
Older people may not possess the technical skills to fill the skills-shortage jobs but can have the sought-after employability skills (often reported as lacking in our youth) and with a little training could excel in sectors that are experiencing recruitment difficulties.
Stephen Lambert, Newcastle city councillor, reflects: “It’s premature to write off [older people]. Some have had decades of valuable work and life experiences. Some possess useful transferable skills without knowing it.”
Thinking in this area is, however, beginning to change. For example, Gateshead College was recently awarded £15 million funding from the European Social Fund through the Skills Funding Agency to get more people into jobs and training and to support businesses to upskill their workforce – of which over 50s are seen as a target group.
Deputy principal of Gateshead College, Chris Toon, explains: “The funding is very much focused on training people with the skills that are a priority now, and will be aligned with the skills gaps that are identified in the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan.”
Chris goes on to explain there are many options currently available for people of all ages who are not in work, have recently been or are under threat of being made redundant, or who simply want to follow another career path.
Gateshead College’s programme tends to focus on key areas such as health, teaching, science, advanced manufacturing and tech and is deeply rooted in industry, utilising the close bonds the college has with local businesses.
For example, short work placements of just one or two weeks are available, where potential trainees can experience a high-growth sector and employers get the chance to identify potential talent.
The view on apprenticeships – often seen as the preserve of school leavers and graduates – is also set to be challenged when the Apprenticeship Levy comes into force in April and will have no age limit on provision.
Paul Carbert, policy advisor for the North East England Chamber of Commerce, echoes the view that opportunities are available in the North East but that more must be done to educate older workers about the options available to them: “One of the barriers to retaining people to fill the skills gaps is a lack of knowledge about where the growth areas are. We need to do more about getting the message out there about where are jobs are now and where the jobs of the future will be.”
Paul goes on to say that more funding from Government could be used to build better infrastructure to reskill workers.
He highlights how Government funding to set up the SSI Task Force after the closure of the steelworks in Redcar which, in 12 months, 821 new jobs for ex-workers and 172 new business start-ups.
Of course, finding time for training and faced with probable salary reductions can put older workers off career change, especially as many will have mortgages, bills and families to look after.
Although Chris Toon accepts it is not easy, he continues to be inspired by those people he meets who are making it work: “I see [older people] who come to Gateshead College and are managing to put so much additional effort into changing their lives.”
Chris also points out that career changes for workers may increasingly become less of an option and more of a necessity.
“The jobs market of the future will be nothing like it is today and people are going to need to be much more agile and flexible in their career,” he says.
“Only last week, I was reading an article that suggests that fast food restaurants will eventually not have waiting staff. You’ll just have machine that will take your order, cook your food and then serve it to you.”
Who knows what the future will bring, but the answer to the current skills gap issue in this region seems to be to look to older workers as well as the student generation.