Smart Moves: Don't knock a little bit of wisdom in the workplace

BRING TOGETHER a catering assistant, a fundraiser, a housing officer, two housewives, a couple of students (one mature, one teenager) and a woman who runs her own pub. Throw in a leatherworker, a jobless man, two retired women - a dressmaker and a magistrate - and a professional bassoon player. Ask them to talk about their experiences of work. Get them to hear out the "experts" from the Government and research centres. Then ask them to come up with a verdict on what constitutes "employability".

Last week, a dozen people from all these walks of life assembled for the latest in a series of citizens' juries entitled Debate of the Age. Funded by Age Concern, the juries have been looking at the implications for British society of an ageing population - the growing percentage of people who live longer. Pensions and housing were two previous subjects: this group of jurors considered the workplace, and what it might look like in 30 years' time.

Mark Bunting, of the research firm Opinion Leader Research, which organises the debates, explains: "There aren't many opport- unities for people to get involved in public policy decision-making, and many didn't know about the policies being designed, which would have direct impact on their lives. This is a way to get round it.

"At the start the group had this nostalgic view of a golden age of manufacturing, where everybody had jobs which suited them," says Mr Bunting. "But they started to appreciate that not only can you not turn back the clock, but it's not desirable. At first, they thought of employability as the right qualifications, being able to talk coherently. Then they thought more about the skills you need, and the attitude to ensure that you're employable."

The roles of government, employer and individual were vigorously debated. Educational policy was perceived as behind the times. "There was a feeling that schools were not good at preparing people for the working world, and not good at equipping people with IT skills," says Mr Bunting. Personal development classes and built-in IT components were needed, they said. One recommendation was to raise the school-leaving age to 18 and incorporate periods of work experience.

Jurors wanted the Government to ensure that people made the most of emerging opportunities from European economic union. Continuity was another priority. "Having a host of new initiatives is not helpful. They thought the New Deal was good, but didn't know much about it," says Mr Bunting.

The issue of giving older people new skills was discussed. "People need to be acclimatised in terms of changing work. They felt the Government had not got to grips with managing expectations, and letting people know what opportunities were open to them: vacancies in travel and tourism, or IT, for instance. Some of the older population are having to confront changing jobs for the first time." This led to a recommendation to encourage employees to "buy into" their own re-skilling rather than having it forced upon or presented to them.

Michelle Harrison, of the Henley Centre, raised the issue of part-time homeworking, something which is set to grow. "It could be that by 2020 some of us will be working in virtual organisations." She adds that while much has been talked about a "leisure" society, the reality is that Britons are working harder than any other European nation. The increasing numbers of women joining the workforce, and the decline of belief in "jobs for life", are also factors in changing the face of the workplace.

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