Smart Moves: Elderly call for a better deal on employment

To survive lay-offs and restructuring over-50s need more training. By Sheena Vernon

THE GOVERNMENT is actively encouraging employers to retain their older workers, through publication of a code of practice on age diversity in employment, due out in March.

Yet they could be giving more practical help, suggests a report published this week. The Glass Precipice brings together case studies of what forward- thinking employers can do to keep the skills of their workforce up-to- date, especially those of older people who may be overlooked in training programmes or bracketed off as potential fodder for downsizing operations.

The study highlights the plight of those over-50s who become economically inactive, largely because they lack the necessary training. The "glass precipice" of the title describes the invisible effect that age can have on an individual's employability because of this. If the Government is serious about encouraging an age balance in the workforce then its job seeking, career support and adult education initiatives, the report suggests, should be targeted towards the 3.5 million people between 50 and 64 who are no longer working.

"There's a whole band of people who have never received any training since they first left college or were apprentices," says Helen Garner, campaign manager of the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA), an employers' association concerned with age issues. Only 7 per cent of those between 55 and 65 are getting any job-related training, she points out.

Yet this is critical if people are to survive redundancy or restructuring. Some 72 per cent of employers cite lack of relevant skills as the main reason preventing them from taking on older people, while 80 per cent of 50-59-year-olds, who have had at least one month job-related training over the past nine years, are in work.

Where government can give most practical assistance, says Garner, is in identifying those sections of the workforce that have toppled over the glass precipice and targeting their programmes towards them. Training and enterprise councils, she suggests, which have equality targets for women and the disabled should aim to reach specific age groups as well. For its part, the EFA intends to run a series of seminars later this year for human resource personnel, which will highlight the importance of training in achieving an age-diverse workforce.

They see the seminars as a practical way of backing up the Government's campaign against ageism. The Department for Education and Employment's (DfEE) draft code of practice is circulating among employers as part of a consultation process. But it has been widely received as anodyne, bland and unconvincing. "We hope the code in its final form will get to grips with the real issues of ageism," says Hilary Simpson, principal personnel officer of Oxfordshire county council and an active member of EFA. First and foremost, says Simpson, if organisations are serious about achieving a balance in their workforce, they must monitor. Her own organisation monitors, by age, sex and race, the people who apply for jobs, those who get interviews and those who get offered a place.

One way to prevent an organisation becoming imbalanced in its age distribution, says Simpson, is to stop using early retirement as a means of "right sizing". It's an easy option, a way round making difficult choices about who should stay or go. It is also very expensive in the long term.

Denise Walker, head of personnel at Nationwide building society, and an EFA member who has submitted detailed comments on the code, says that age discrimination should be tackled as part of more general policies aimed at promoting diversity. Nationwide is foremost in trying to develop what Walker calls a "culture of diversity". The company not only monitors the statistical make-up of its workforce but is introducing more flexible forms of employment so that individuals can achieve a balance between work and private life. Career breaks for both sexes, part-time contracts, before and after the official retirement age of 60, and flexible hours, are among the options offered. All staff are given two performance and career reviews a year to ensure that they receive regular training. Even the form of training has been changed to help individuals: workshops during school hours have replaced three- day sessions away from home.

Nationwide and Oxfordshire county council would like to offer the opportunity for over-50s to switchto part-time working, without forgoing pension rights, but are stymied by inflexible pension regulations. In a report published last year, the EFA highlighted these restrictions which prevent people from working for an employer, part-time, while also drawing from, or still contributing to, the company pension. The Inland Revenue, says Helen Garner, is indeed now looking at the issue, but it is a genuinely complex one.

In 10 years' time one in four of those of working age (at present construed as 16 to 65) will be over 50. For governments, faced with the prospect of having financially to support underused manpower, and for organisations who recruit exclusively from younger age groups only to find that eventually they have an aging workforce profile, the economic argument for age diversity is compelling. In its present form, though, the DfEE code of practice is a missed opportunity to put these arguments across to the doubters.

Yet, as Ms Simpson points out, employability and age is something that affects us all. Around half of us are female; around 10 per cent of us are from ethnic backgrounds; a minute proportion of us are disabled. But all of us, barring premature death, will one day be old. What employers construe as "old", how employable they think older people are, and what actions government takes to counteract ageist cultures or free up pension rights, is important to everyone.

`The Glass Precipice', EFA (tel: 0181 765 7280; DfEE Publications (tel: 0845 60 222 60; fax: 0845 60 333 60).

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