Listen to this article
Workers without digital skills will be almost unemployable in five years, according to a new book aimed at senior executives. The message is simple: old dogs will need new tricks to survive in the jobs market — including learning how to code.
Demand for digital training is growing. Many workers are aware that they do not have the skills of their younger colleagues. They also know that most employers offer no help to re-train. If you want to become fit for the digital age, you must help yourself.
Anita Hoffmann, author of Purpose and Impact: How Executives are Creating Meaningful Second Careers, suggests “reverse mentoring” can work; senior employees pass on knowledge to their younger colleagues in return for help in improving their digital skills. It helps to prepare older employees for potential second careers and also gives younger employees new skills.
“Everyone born before the millennial generation needs to invest serious time and energy into developing digital skills or we will be close to unemployable in five years’ time,” she says.
For those who need help now, a growing number of free digital and coding tutorials are available throughout the UK, together with free coding websites. These skills are particularly useful for people starting their own businesses who will need to use social media for their marketing — a blind spot for many over-50s.
Codeacademy.com, which was founded in 2011, offers free coding lessons. It estimates that 25m people have gained programming skills through its online courses.
A survey of over-60s learning to code online found that 14 per cent were doing it for their job and another 9 per cent were doing it to improve their job prospects, while 22 per cent wanted to make up for missed opportunities when they were young. There is also a gender divide among those learning to code — 84 per cent of respondents to the survey of 60-85 year-olds using pythontutor.com, one of the free coding tutors, were male.
For those who are nervous of taking the first steps online, there are free introductory sessions in libraries and schools throughout the country.
CodeUp, founded by Claire Wicher, the chief executive of Geeks Up North, who blogs as GirlGeekUpNorth has 17 branches in the North West, which support people wanting to learn digital skills.
“Most people come to us as they want to switch careers, or just learn something new,” she said. “It can be quite daunting in the tech sector and some people can be put off. I think that development, in particular, is a sector that should be more accessible to older generations.”
Ms Wicher said the fast-paced environment of the tech sector meant that everyone was always learning something new, and that people coming into the industry later in life should not feel at a disadvantage.
After attending the support sessions, she finds that people are more confident when using websites such as Codeacademy.com or FreeCodeCamp.org. She has also worked in Salford on a project to help the over-65s feel included in their communities. Inspiring Communities Together runs regular “tech and tea” sessions to spread the word.
Richard Rolfe, a former headteacher, who started National Coding Week in 2014, said that he was aware that all school pupils were now being taught how to code. When he left education because of an illness in his early-fifties, he recognised that most adults left school long before the subject was compulsory.
At this time he met a former student, who was a web developer and asked if he would join up with him to train unemployed people for a week in coding skills. Ten took part; several got internships, 60 per cent subsequently got into paid employment.
“The biggest barrier is the lack of opportunity to learn digital skills in a no-pressure and relaxed environment for one or two hours,” said Mr Rolfe. “All the emphasis is on children but if people in their 50s and 60s are made redundant we should train them up in digital skills. If you have a laptop you can contribute to the digital economy.”
There are hundreds of events run by volunteers that anyone can take part in.
“Everyone should have an opportunity at their local library or school to do a taster session,” Mr Rolfe said, adding that most one and two hour courses are free.
National Coding Week will take place this year from September 17 to 23. Details of support available can be found on codingweek.org.
Libraries in Leeds started a limited number of “Hour of Code” sessions last year for the over 60s. They promoted them with the slogan “A code a day can keep your brain 10 years younger”. The sessions were so popular that they are now taking place all year round.
Older people taking university courses are often nervous about their lack of digital skills. Birkbeck College in London has a self-paced course called Birkbeck IT Fitness, which allows all students to ensure they have a basic grasp of digital skills and the standard software packages they will be expected to use during their studies.
Longer, more in-depth courses are also available at a price. There are coding “boot camps” that start at £6,000 and require more than 10 weeks’ attendance. Others are specifically aimed at adults running their own small businesses.
Louize Clarke runs courses through her company Connect TVT, aimed at jobs returners and small businesses to help them with social media marketing, app design and coding.
She is currently working with 80 students in Reading on a part-time course Wearedigitalgum.com. Partly funded by the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership. It has cost participants £60 for five weeks of twice-weekly classes twice plus homework assignments and access to the Slack messaging tool.
Ms Clarke says that some of the students have small businesses that are not succeeding and realise that the gap in their digital knowledge is holding them back.
Lindsay Cook is the FT’s Money Mentor columnist
Get alerts on Managing yourself when a new story is published