Bill Burns with apprentices Jack Stanworth (left) and Nathan Heywood.
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Bill Burns may have officially retired 12 years ago from his foundry job in West Yorkshire but his expertise is considered so crucial that the 78-year old returns every week to Scottish engineering company Weir Group to teach its apprentices.

For five hours from 6.30am, he provides training in foundry and pattern making — skills that Weir has struggled to get from any of its local colleges.

“When I retired it was just six months before companies were ringing me up and saying we need foundry and pattern-making training,” says Mr Burns.

He is one of a growing number of older professionals being coaxed out of retirement by engineering companies trying to find ways round a skills crunch, frequently cited as one of the biggest challenges facing industry.

But their efforts come with a cost. Toby Peyton-Jones, HR director for Siemens UK, says his company has “a demographic cliff in some of our job families, particularly in manufacturing and engineering”.

Siemens is offering flexible working hours, retrainingand mentoring relationships to keep those with the needed skills. But Mr Peyton-Jones admits the downside is that older workforces are costly for businesses.

“They are at their most expensive so paying a proper pension that allows people a realistic prospect to retire is an important long-term strategy,” he says. “You pay now so you don’t pay later when people can’t retire.”

A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by Towers Watson, this year highlights this fear that an ageing workforce will increase employment costs.

The survey of 480 companies across Europe found that 40 per cent believe that by 2020 their current benefits package is unlikely to be fit for purpose, with 59 per cent expecting the cost of benefits as a percentage of salary to rise. Nearly half expect employee demand for healthcare and retirement provision to grow.

Rodolphe Delacroix, director at Towers Watson, says companies need to adjust working conditions and compensation structures for their ageing workforce. “If we don’t reassess the deal between employees and employers I think it would be a loss of opportunity and a very sad development of working conditions,” he says.

But for many companies the need for a skilled workforce outweighs the disadvantages of keeping older professionals.

Tony Locke, managing director of Weir’s European Minerals division, says it has been important for the company to hold on to people with experience.

“Some of the skills we require in the business are not easily found. This has been a successful way for us to continue to support our young people and really give us a stop gap to be able to catch up and rebuild our skills’ pool,” he says.

Mr Peyton-Jones of Siemens admits there are “lots of positives” about multi-generational workforces. “In a business like ours that does have high engineering risk, they are a risk management factor. That experience is very difficult to buy out there in the market,” he says.

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