Pensioner Ken Slater, a B&Q employee, uses a lift to check stock levels at a store in Gillingham, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010
DIY: retailer B&Q has a longstanding policy of employing staff past the usual retirement age © Bloomberg

Working lives are being extended as life expectancy rises and public health improves — and employers are starting to value older workers more. However, campaigners say that company attitudes and practices need to change faster if serious labour shortages are to be averted in future.

Barclays Bank and coach operator National Express recently announced apprenticeship schemes aimed at older workers, putting them in the forefront of corporate initiatives to widen the age diversity of workforces.

The National Express scheme aims to recruit people for whom age and extended career breaks can pose a barrier to finding employment, including the over-50s, women returning to work after raising children, the long-term unemployed and full-time carers.

“We place a high value on a diverse workforce because it reflects our broad customer base and we believe our business is strengthened by a wide range of skills and experience,” says Tom Stables, managing director for the company’s UK coach division.

National Express joins retailer B&Q, a longstanding champion of employing older staff, and companies such as fast-food chain McDonald’s, pub operator JD Wetherspoon and Lloyds Banking Group in taking steps to encourage older employees.

Baroness (Ros) Altmann, the government’s former business champion for older workers, now pensions minister, said in a report in March that a growing number of employers understood the benefits of employing older staff. But, she added: “They are still a minority. Age discrimination and unconscious bias remain widespread problems in the UK labour market.”

While some people choose to work longer because they enjoy it, for others it is a financial necessity when facing a long retirement. The government has addressed this issue by abolishing the default retirement age, so that staff can no longer be forced out at 65, and extending the right to request flexible working. The state pension age for women is rising to 65, in line with that for men — both will reach 66 by 2020 and 67 by 2028.

Employment rates for people in their 50s and 60s have been rising for two decades and have grown more sharply than for other age groups since the financial crisis. The rate for people aged 65 and over has climbed from 7 per cent in 2007 to 10.7 per cent. The number of self-employed over-65s has doubled in the past five years to nearly half a million.

“The evidence suggests that a lot more employers are keeping people on for longer. Where there is a problem is in recruitment. People who are older find it difficult to get a job if they haven’t got one,” says Dianah Worman, adviser on diversity at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Employers that fail to tackle age diversity risk losing out in the search for staff. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills says between 2012 and 2022 some 12.5m vacancies will be opened up through people leaving the workforce and an additional 2m new jobs will be created, yet only 7m young people are due to enter the workforce. Net immigration at 300,000 a year is unlikely to fill the gap. Baroness Altmann called for more apprenticeships for those over 50, flexible and part-time working and better training for line managers.

“We are in the early stages in terms of a strategic response from employers,” says Rachael Saunders, age at work director at the charity Business in the Community. BITC found that 1m people over 50 had been pushed out of the workplace during the past eight years through redundancy, ill health or “forced” early retirement.

Ms Saunders, who is working with organisations such as Nationwide Building Society and the Co-operative Group, praises outsourcer Sodexo, a finalist in BITC’s Responsible Business Awards, for a scheme to help employers understand the needs of different generations of workers.

At Stoke-based tableware manufacturer Steelite International, 360 of the company’s 877 UK employees are aged 50 or over. “Employees who have been with the company for a long time are often a fountain of knowledge,” says Louise Griffin, human resources manager.

She says it is important to carry out a review to identify what an individual needs and can offer. Flexible working and redeployment are among techniques used to find the right role. In one department, two employees who wanted to retire from full-time work agreed to share a job.

Case study: A.T. Brown

Ewen MacLeod, director of A.T. Brown, a family-owned coach hire company based in Shropshire in the west of England, says employing older workers has helped the business to grow from four employees 18 years ago to 32 today.

Currently it has four working beyond the usual retirement age and two coming up to it. The oldest employee is a 79-year-old driver who does a school run every morning in term time, and the youngest a 19-year-old apprentice mechanic.

“The main logic is economic,” Mr MacLeod says. “We have a business that peaks at two parts of the day and it suits older workers to come in in the morning, take some children to school and come in in the afternoon to take them home again.”

But, he adds: “We value the other benefits as well. They have a positive effect on younger workers and a wealth of experience they can pass on, particularly in terms of customer service.” Mr MacLeod is himself 59 and has no plans to retire.

“Anybody who discounts an employee on the basis of age is missing out,” he says. “Our older workers are not as physically fit as they once were, but the skills and experience they bring to the table more than compensate for that.”

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