Rich source of working skills comes of age

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONWIDE Building Society has dropped age barriers from its job advertisements. W H Smith does not have them either. Waverley Borough Council has changed its job applications to omit date of birth. Unigate recruits solely on job suitability, believing any other form of discrimination is 'commercial suicide'.

These policies are not just designed to help older people find jobs; they enable organisations to tap a rich source of skills and experience. Like the Government, which has just published an advisory booklet for companies, Getting On: the Benefits of an Older Workforce, employers are recognising that an abundance of ability is available among jobless over-50s.

This shift in attitude owes much to the rise of local networks that help older, unemployed people to help themselves. The newest, Third Age Challenge, is being formed in Brent, north London. Sixty people, covering a wide ethnic and skills range, already want to join.

John Appleyard, who will run the network, says: 'We will encourage self-help and mutual support, and prepare people to contract themselves out to several employers. So we are considering a different type of CV, perhaps more like a brochure.'

Third Age Challenge stems from Reaction Trust, an organisation started by industrialists in 1991 to draw attention to the qualities of those aged 50 to 74, and promote work prospects.

Jim Ogilvie, director of the trust, decided at the outset that pontificating was not enough. To show what could be done, he had to find an organisation with practical achievements to its name. The role model was supplied by Third Age First, which had started in Swindon in 1989, and was funded initially by an Allied Dunbar charitable trust. It now receives funding from the local authority.

In addition to recruitment work for older people, Bruce Clarke and Judy Harris, who ran TAF, had carried out some research work. Three main points had emerged. One was that employers were all for older workers - in modest jobs. Here, they saw them as 'reliable and conscientious'. For senior roles, however, they 'could not learn, get on with younger people or manage new technology'. Mr Clarke calls it 'the two-card theory'.

The second point was that the long-term unemployed were afflicted by a 'culture of pessimism' - they did not believe they would succeed with their job applications.

Thirdly, TAF found work was available for over-50s in flexible roles - consultancy, interim management and contract work - rather than staff jobs.

With the onset of recession, TAF introduced New Directions, a career- and life-planning course that attacked the culture of pessimism. It looked to boost the self-confidence of older people - by showing them their skills and track records were a strength - and steer them to the type of jobs in which employers felt they could contribute. The numbers finding work began to increase, and so far 1,500 people have used Third Age First. The male-female ratio is 70:30. 'We try to get women on courses, as they have a more positive outlook,' Mr Clarke says.

Mr Ogilvie decided that Reaction Trust should replicate Third Age First in as many towns as possible. Other groups came to light, and last year the trust established Third Age Challenge, a partnership between itself and the Swindon initiative to provide employment and training projects.

Mr Clarke became operations manager in March and New Directions will shortly be launched as a distance-learning programme. Meanwhile, there are local networks - some predating the trust - in Bristol, York, Norwich, Cardiff, Bath, London, Bournemouth, Glasgow and Edinburgh, among other centres. Each offers such services as counselling or databases of receptive employers and of members' skills.

Efforts are being made to start a project in Nottinghamshire with the Rural Community Council, to help miners made redundant by pit closures. And employers are also taking the initiative. Mr Ogilvie cites the example of Ford, which has established a consultancy company for redundant managers, guaranteeing them a regular amount of project work each year.

In Guildford, the local network scored an unexpected success: two companies with young workforces asked the local Third Age Network for managers with experience. In one case, an unemployed man began contract working one day a week; this has increased to five days. Then a second manager was taken on.

Guildford's group has 70 unemployed members, who pay pounds 10 a year. It is run by volunteers and co-ordinated by Gwynfi Jones and Cliff O'Brien. When people began arriving from Sussex, they started a Crawley group and then another at Dartford, Kent.

Mr Ogilvie says: 'I think older people will come to the fore as consultants. Where there are no jobs, they need to concentrate on contract work.'

(Photograph omitted)