A day at the JobCentre – what I learned about over-50s employment
Out of work over-50s suffer from poor tech skills, loss of confidence and ageism
Some JobCentres offer specific over50s training for IT, CVs and interviews
Volunteering is a great way into work – half of over-50s volunteers find employment
Having spent a day at the Streatham JobCentre, I thought you might be interested in some of my observations.
What’s it like?: The Streatham JobCentre is managed by a passionate woman called Denise who is clearly on top of her staff and encourages them to do their best for those who come through the JobCentre doors. There is plenty going on. Apart from the Advisers for JobSeekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA – which used to be called Incapacity Benefit) there are computers available for applicants to use, training sessions (some specifically for over-50s) and different seminars on various floors. I was told that over 90% of JSA claimants find work within 12 months, but older applicants are less likely to find work than the young.
Current situation: The local economy has been picking up in recent months, with far more jobs available. Initiatives to encourage more work experience and apprenticeships for the young have had a real impact, but those who have been unemployed for longest are in the older age categories. Some applicants have problems of drug and alcohol addiction (in fact the JobCentre staff had to help out someone who was drunk when I was there) as well as homelessness. Specific staff are dedicated to dealing with these issues which are so challenging when seeking employment.
Training provided by JobCentres: The JobCentre runs a range of different training courses and I sat in on one for the over-50s. Not all JobCentres have prioritised older jobseekers in this way, as they have discretion on how they spend their budgets. Older people tend to have specific needs, including requiring help with CV writing, interview techniques and new skills relevant to a modern workplace, including competency based application assessments or psychometric testing which older people are not familiar with. The course I attended offered practical tips to a group of 12 older jobseekers on how to network, how to build a personal ‘brand’, how to think about persuading an employer they will fit into the workforce, as well as being given a ‘skills healthcheck’ form, to help identify the particular skills they are good at.
Particular problems for over-50s: I was told that the biggest barriers for older workers are lack of up-to-date skills, lack of confidence and the ageist attitudes of employers who automatically assume older jobseekers will be less valuable to them than younger applicants. Improving technology and social media skills of over-50s is vital as so much recruitment is on-line. Many of those I met explained how being turned down for countless jobs leads to a loss of confidence, then to depression, which further reduces employment chances and they end up on ESA.
Promoting over-50s’ skills: All the advisers and training staff that I met commented on specific attributes they believe over 50s bring to an employer. These include loyalty, life experience, reliability, patience, organisational skills, time management and the ability to engage well with other people, including customers or even mentoring younger staff. It is important to change the way employers think about over 50s, appreciating that experience DOES matter.
Volunteering can be a good way into work – 50% of volunteers find a job:
Encouraging older jobseekers to take up volunteering has achieved good results. I met a firm which places volunteers locally, in roles including working in hospitals, food preparation or teaching. There are websites such as ‘Do It’ – www.do-it.org.uk or Community Service Volunteers, who run a specific programme for over 50s volunteers http://www.csv-rsvp.org.uk/site/home.htm or for volunteers with professional skills at www.reachskills.org.uk . Volunteers are effectively benefitting from work experience and can get references that ultimately lead to paid work. In fact, I was told that half of the unemployed who do volunteer work end up with a job, therefore a greater emphasis on encouraging volunteering could be beneficial.
New Enterprise Allowance: Many over-50s would like to work for themselves, especially if they find themselves discriminated against in the application process. The Government’s new Enterprise Allowance scheme, offering loans to set up a new enterprise, has the potential to help many over-50s find their own niche. Self-employment can suit older people well, allowing them to combine caring with working from home or at flexible hours perhaps.
Tailored help for over 50s: Over 50s may need special help to adapt to the modern working world. They may feel they don’t ‘belong’, or have outdated skills and need to learn new techniques. There is a skill gap in jobsearch for older applicants, who need to learn about online applications, social media, electronic CVs and even Video CVs. Further funding for training over-50s would be helpful.
Could Government subsidies for taking on younger workers be extended to older apprentices?: Employers taking on younger workers aged 16-24 are paid £2275 if the young person stays employed with them for over 6 months. There are no such subsidies for older workers, which means employers are biased against taking on the over 50s. Having had tremendous success in reducing youth unemployment, I hope we may see subsidised training, work placements or apprenticeships to help reduce long-term unemployment and re-skill older workers. From an employer perspective, training or recruiting an older person can improve their workforce stability, since older people are much less likely to move jobs than the young.
Zero hours contracts can be a barrier to employment: Many of the job vacancies that exist are in the care or hospitality industries, but they are often zero hours contracts. I think there needs to be careful consideration of the appropriateness of using zero hours contracts, especially in an industry like carework, in which staff continuity and reliability are so important. With an aging population, it is inevitable that demand for care services will rise sharply in coming years and I think the industry needs to evaluate its approach to staff reward and retention.
Conclusion: Streatham JobCentre is making progress in specifically helping older jobseekers, but the particular initiatives they have introduced need to be rolled out more broadly across the country. Volunteering can also help increase employment prospects. If we are to tackle the issue of recruiting older workers, more interventions will be required to ensure the barriers they face – lack of skills, loss of confidence and ageist attitudes, are overcome.
Case study – Martin:
I met Martin who left his previous job 6 years ago to train as an electrician. He did three years’ training, but then found he could not be a self-employed electrician without further qualifications, costing about £1000. He did not have the money for this and was very distressed to realise he could not do the job he wanted. He explained how he then decided he just wanted to work, and did not mind what work he did. He sent his CV to 20-30 employers a day for over 6 months and found no work. He tried Universal JobMatch but his CV did not pass the computer process-driven assessments used by many firms nowadays. CVs need to be tailored to keywords that computers search for to select candidates for interview. Eventually, he was offered a job as a careworker but that offer was withdrawn because the company could not contact his references in time – his previous firm may have changed hands or the person who knew him had moved on.
It was heart-rending to hear him describe how he would look out of the window each morning and see people going to work and felt inadequate. He said ‘when you’re not working it takes away from your humanity’. He ended up on ESA with depression but has now recovered and just found work. He was really excited to be starting a job at last. I suggested to the JSA advisers that when someone first signs on after redundancy that they should be asked if they can provide references immediately which can be placed on their file, so that they are readily accessible if an employer needs references quickly.
Case study – Kafa:
Kafa lost her husband a few years ago and had been looking after her 17 year old daughter, but now wanted to find work. She was on JSA for a time but couldn’t find any work, then her Work Adviser suggested self-employment. She received a £2500 loan and help with a business plan from the New Enterprise Allowance, bought some stock and set up a business selling hair pieces and jewellery at markets. She is really happy to be working and proudly showed me some of the items she sells.