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The over 50s can bridge the digital skills gap

The UK facing a chronic digital skills crisis, with over half of employers saying they are struggling to find candidates with the right skills for tech positions. Whilst the tax breaks are surely a welcome bonus, it will take a lot more to encourage older workers to, in Jeremy Hunt’s words, ‘get off the golf course’.

In March’s budget announcement, Jeremy Hunt announced a drive to motivate over-50s back into work through the introduction of ‘returnerships’ – programmes aimed at upskilling and reskilling older workers to re-join the workforce.  

The UK facing a chronic digital skills crisis, with over half of employers saying they are struggling to find candidates with the right skills for tech positions. Whilst the tax breaks are surely a welcome bonus, it will take a lot more to encourage older workers to, in Jeremy Hunt’s words, ‘get off the golf course’ 

After 40 years of work, some have said they will only return if it is very much on their terms. They will want to find a job that will fit their health, financial circumstances, and caring responsibilities. 

This is a challenge that needs both the government and the tech industry to work together. As the UK aims to move towards a tech-centric future, there is huge potential. The over-50s have the foundational skills and experience to help drive us forward, but they will need solid promises of reward and the right support, skills, and confidence to work in the tech industry.  

Imposter Syndrome 
One of the biggest issues facing the current digital skills gap is its accessibility. Often seen as complicated and impenetrable for anyone without a computer science degree, we need to recast the idea that it is a young person’s game. The ageism is reflected in the numbers: just 22% of UK workers in tech are over 50, well below the average in other sectors. This is alienating not just older people, but huge parts of the workforce, including women and minorities. 

Moving to a new industry you’ve never worked in before is daunting for anyone, but for someone who’s already retired from their working life, those apprehensions will be magnified: can I do this with no experience in the industry? Am I too old to keep up with technology? 

Yet, many people over-50 are likely to have worked in a variety of different sectors and therefore have a wide pool of knowledge to share; something we can’t afford to overlook. Years of experience also bring with it maturity and in an industry that has a multiplicity of diverse roles, there are many transferable skills. For example, management skills, planning skills and dealing with stakeholder relationships is something that many young and new employees just don’t have experience in.  

Keep it flexible
If there was one positive thing we could take from the pandemic, it is the realisation that work can be flexible and now hybrid working has become the norm for many. Its success cannot be overstated; aside from no longer being sardined on a packed tube 5 times a week, workers have reported better productivity, work-life balance and generally better well-being.  

 People no longer have to adapt their personal life and responsibilities strictly around work and can get the job done from almost anywhere. Older workers are no different: a third of over-50s who are considering returning to work have said that flexible working patterns are the most important factor. 

This is especially important to consider with the over-50s demographic, who are likely to have caring responsibilities, whether that be children, grandchildren or spouses. As well as this, there are sometimes employees with disabilities that may make it difficult to return to the office.  

Tech is a sector that has the capability to work around caring responsibilities or disabilities, but organisations are still falling short in providing adaptable structures. It’s as simple as offering the option to work from home or implanting flexible work patterns that will make a big impact on bringing in a huge demographic of people who have years of skills and a variety of experience to bring to the table. 

We need to know what works before we put it to work
If the government truly wants to implement the ‘returnerships’ scheme, then it needs to turn to industry experts for advice and recognise what current programmes are working and which ones don’t. Success needs to be measured on how many people are placed in roles at the end of the schemes, rather than how many people are just pushed through the mill. 

With 1 in 10 over-50s more likely to leave their job if they don’t feel supported, putting in place training and opportunities will build tangible skills. Many older workers already have the foundations in place and skills that can easily be converted to tech. 

Too often, we see the current courses focus far too much on the piece of paper at the end, and not on the practical skills people need. If you hired a plasterer, you wouldn’t ask them to explain the chemical compounds in plaster or write an essay on the history of plastering through the ages – you’d ask them to demonstrate their work.  

Tech is no different and we need to be able to have programmes in place where people are trained by industry experts who have worked in the field and are trained in what’s required to do the job. It’s obvious: successful programmes will deliver successful results. 

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