David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (Niace), writes:
Recent cuts in FE and HE have resulted in a huge loss of learning opportunities for people aged 24 and over.
We have already seen a collapse in part-time HE and in Level 3 and 4 apprenticeships for adults and next year reduced funding will put more of a squeeze on opportunities for older people. And it is worth remembering that you’re an older person now at 24.
The government focus on helping young people in the transition from school to work is absolutely right; young people do need better learning and skills options and opportunities to be able to successfully make that tough transition.
But to focus on that transition and ignore all the later transitions that people face in life - redundancy, new technology in the workplace, returning from maternity or long-term sick leave and leaving care - is simply and plainly wrong.
Ignoring those later transitions will have huge consequences for individuals,families, employers, society and the economy. Ignoring the demographic changes we face will also have profound consequences. Currently one in six of the population are over 65, by 2050 it will be one in four.
I could easily make the arguments about the wider benefits of learning - health, confidence, tolerance, enjoyment, family, community - and how those benefits should, in any decent society, be available to all people throughout their lives.
But there is a simple economic argument which probably carries more weight with many about the future of our economy. Employer plans suggest that there will be 13.5 million vacancies over the next 10 years, but only 7 million young people will leave school and college and enter the job market.
That alone means that we have to support people over the age of 24 to be able to develop their skills and to cope with the transitions they might face.
Getting people to take this issue seriously and act on it now is a bit like the climate change debate of the past few decades. There’s a reluctance to act unless the consequences are going to take effect now – or within the parliamentary term.
A recent House of Lord’s report concluded that the government and society were ‘woefully under-prepared’ for our ageing society and I heartily agree.
Let's take that issue of 6.5 million more job vacancies than new entrants into the labour market. Immigration will go some way to fill that gap, but nothing like on the scale needed – especially when it is interpreted as so unpopular.
The only solution is that people will have to work for longer and they will need to have the right skills – and good enough health – to continue working into their late 60s and 70s and even perhaps beyond that. But to keep working productively until that age it’s vital that the support for planning and preparing and for learning new skills is available, affordable and accessible.
For the last year Niace has been running a pilot programme which we believe is a big part of the solution. Like most good ideas is it is simple and as a bonus it is relatively cheap as well and we are proving that it works.
John Hayes, the then minister for skills asked us to look at how a rounded career review could support people to make changes during mid-life, to help them plan and prepare for the next stage of their life, with a particular focus on employment, finances, health and retirement.
Over 3,000 people – most of them aged between 45 and 64 – had career reviews as part of the pilot. Around half were in work and the other half unemployed.
One-third of those in work were facing redundancy, others wanted to adapt to a new way of working or new working practices and for others the challenge was for them to simply stay in the job they currently have.
Two-thirds had achieved their highest qualification over 10 years ago – and only one in five in the last 5 years. One in five hadn’t participated in learning or training since they left school and a similar proportion hadn’t in the last 10 years or more.
There were people who were drifting in their careers, seeing their time out, but as retirement day recedes into the future and the reality of low pension income becomes more apparent, people start to think about their options. Add to that pressure the technological changes in the workplace and the need for higher productivity and the situation can often look bleak.
We have shown that a career review can stimulate people to understand and consider their options with more confidence and more insight. Four-fifths of surveyed advisers said that their clients had improved confidence or motivation to explore career options and make changes, following their review.
A re-motivated, re-energised workforce – particularly those in mid-life – is vital for our economy. We are calling on the government to give all adults an entitlement to a career review in mid-life as well as at other key transitions in their lives.
Policy-makers, learning providers and guidance professionals must implement a lifelong approach to career education. And there must be opportunities for people to retrain and reskill throughout their working lives.
Otherwise skills shortages will continue to rise, vacancies will go unfilled and people will languish in unemployment or underemployment as well as enter retirement less well off and probably less healthy.