Don't let age get in the way of a career change...or a path to fulfilment

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The Independent Online

Terry Robinson is 70. As far as he's concerned it's an age for bold beginnings, not retirement, because he's doing an apprenticeship in retail with B&Q. "I'm the oldest apprentice here," says Robinson who envisages working until his legs pack up.

He began his new job 19 months ago, after 22 years in the mobile home industry. "I was bought up in a Barnardos home to when I was 15 and the one thing they teach you is a work ethic which never leaves you," he says. "I can't sit still."

Robinson earns £550 a month for a 20-hour week as a customer adviser, specialising in electrical goods and shelving and has benefited from B&Q's active policy of recruiting older workers (their oldest employee is 95). He applied to ASDA, Sainsburys, Morrisons and Tescos at the same time. "None bothered to return my emails."

It's not easy to find work in today's economic climate, especially when you're over 50, but that's just what the government wants Britain's expanding older population to do, to ease the predicted pensions crisis.

It's Caroline Wilson's job to help this older workforce find employment. She works three days a week at The Age and Employment Network (TAEN) and at 60 is one such worker herself. She has no plans to retire. "I love my job. I love working and I cannot imagine stopping."

Like Robinson, she is more concerned with personal fulfilment than the extra money, although she says the extra money does come in handy. Older workers bring reliability and expertise, she believes. "A lot of people take a lower income but I don't think that worries them," she says. "They're just happy being out in the workforce."

Some simply need the extra money: "They don't have the pension they thought they'd have, and they need to be out there."

Wilson left her previous job to care for her mother who'd had a stroke. She spotted an advertisement for a course for women returning to work, funded by the European Social Fund. "I did it and enjoyed it. It opened my eyes to the fact that I could make a career change."

She volunteered at TAEN for six months before learning there was a job for her. "I found going back to work liberating, it changed my life completely," she says. Wilson tries to rekindle confidence in other older workers: "You can talk to people and feel the negativity in them. It's very hard to be out of work... people think you're past it."

After an active life running a farm for 30 years and bringing up five children, Celia Preston wasn't past it when the family sold their farm. "I was bored stiff... I was watching television five hours a day, when a BBC TV show said 'Would you like to change your life and be a garden designer?' I thought 'That's exactly what I want to do."

She entered a competition, became one of eight contestants selected from 4,000 hopefuls and went on to win the silver medal. "At 67, I was much the oldest, but I was fit and I thought I can do this. Ever since then I've been working." She is 72 now and feels as if she could continue forever. It keeps her agile, mentally as well as physically. She was concerned that she'd forget all the plant names. But during a five month live-in training course at Wisley she immersed herself in learning.

"Every night I'd learn five new names. I thought my brain wouldn't do it but it's extraordinary, when you're really interested in a subject, how you do learn, even at my age."

She does some of the manual labour herself and employs contractors to do the rest. Age hasn't dimmed her: "I pace myself. I'm a canny old horse. I get more done in the long run."

Over the year Preston earns just over £10,000: "Small fry... but it's extremely handy. My husband is retired so I'm the only one bringing in any money and it's jolly nice to have. It means that you don't mind getting a new washing machine or going on holiday. It makes our lives much happier."

CTAEN – www.taen.org.uk

B&Q – www.diy.com/diy/jsp/corporate/content/careers/index.jsp

Celia Preston Garden Design celiasweetpea@hotmail.com

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