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Over 50, but not over the hill

As ministers prepare to outlaw ageism at work, Sue Jones reports on a rescue package for older people who need to keep earning

Middle-aged people who are made redundant have only a one in 10 chance of getting another a job. Self-employment can be the way back to the world of work, but it is hard.

Laurie South is executive director of a new government-backed enterprise, Prime Initiative, which aims to restore confidence in workers of a certain age.

The key problem is, he says, that we have not got a society that supports enterprise. "Where we are now with business support is where we were with schools in 1900 - you've got something near you that will give you basic training, but doesn't give you that expertise," he says.

Setting up a business when you have always worked for someone else is tricky. You need capital, training and the know-how to make your way in a new world.

But the most important thing is the support that gives you the confidence to start in the first place, according to Rosemary Hallett, small business adviser at North Devon college's business and IT centre.

Self-employment is too often seen as a last resort for people who have failed to find another job. Advice and guidance is sparse, and grants and loans are only offered after months of unemployment. By this time, many people have lost heart and given up.

Believing that much talent is going to waste through redundancy and enforced early retirement, The Prime Initiative aims to make self-employment a positive first choice. It helps out-of-work over-50s to set up and sustain their own businesses with advice, mentoring and loans for everything from making jewellery to book-keeping to dog training.

Incorporated in 2001, the not-for-profit company is wholly owned by Age Concern. It has nine full-time-equivalent staff and is building up regional teams of advisers.

It supplies leaflets, runs advice workshops, deals with 4,000 calls a year to its helpline and has more than 80,000 hits a month on its website. And it aims to set up a network of outreach workers.

"For somebody who's been made redundant, it's quite difficult to change," says Mr South. "It's no good just putting up a poster. You need to go out, talk to people, look at their problems and help them confront their demons."

As a lobbyist, Prime is building up partnerships with regional development agencies and other enterprise organisations to promote self-employment for the economically inactive over-50s.

For those who cannot raise funds for a new business elsewhere, Prime lends up to pound;5,000 to individuals at 9.5 per cent interest, repayable over up to three years. But creating and sustaining a viable business needs training and mentoring, which Prime thinks should be free for the over-50s.

It forms partnerships with advice and training providers, such as Truro college's business centre.

Using European Social Funding, the college runs short courses in self-employment start-ups. Additional sessions cover topics such as marketing, finance, website creation and sales techniques. "So many people are coming out of industry in their 50s and can't afford to retire," says business adviser Richard Simeons, who works with Prime.

"We can help them analyse what they want to do, utilise the skills that 50-year-olds have got and take them into the marketplace with modest funding," says Mr Simeons.

Some build up long-term relationships with the college, he added. If their business succeeds, they come back for management training.

Similar courses are available from another Prime partner, North Devon college's business and IT centre, and the demand is growing. "We have one-to-one meetings, help them to access courses and IT, give assistance with the business plan, market research, finance information and the legal side. We have to provide each new business owner with a support programme," says Rosemary Hallett.

The college is also able to promote the idea of self-employment through events such as the local Health Care Trust's pre-retirement course.

Many of the over-50s want to stay in their own type of work, said Ms Hallett. They have experience and can often see a gap that could be filled by a small business.

But in an area so dependent on tourism, there is also a lot of interest in guesthouses and bed and breakfast. And many farmers' wives are diversifying into specialist holidays, organic produce and farmers' markets.

In Tyneside, a loan from Prime helped Mervin Thomas go solo in the music business.

He began playing the drums as a little boy in Barbados. Now in his early 50s and following a career playing with bands in the pubs and clubs of the North-east, he wants to make his living by writing music.

"I mainly write soul ballads and a bit of reggae. I write songs good enough to be sung by anybody - when I produce a lyric, I produce it as a song." He also hopes to be commissioned to write music for TV adverts.

But getting the words and music into a marketable form needed the right equipment. The Government's New Deal 50-plus programme sent him to the enterprise agency In Biz, who put him in touch with Prime.

"They helped me with a loan last August to start me off with the equipment - percussion, amps and a computer. The loan was a blessing," said Mr Thomas. "Everything that comes now is beautiful."

Prime Initiative at tel: 020 8765 7852.Helpline: 0800 783 1904

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