Robert Brown is training as an apprentice. He wants to pursue a career that interests him and work towards a challenging and stimulating qualification. So this year, he embarked on a level 2 apprenticeship in funeral operations and services at the Co-operative Funeralcare in Canterbury.
While many of the other apprentices he works with are young people setting out on their journey into the world of work, Brown is in a somewhat different position. Now aged 67, he retired from his previous job as a detective sergeant in 2009, having spent 30 years in the police force.
And while becoming an apprentice at the same time as being eligible for a pension may sound unusual, Brown is by no means alone. Between August 2015 and January 2016, about 300 people aged 68 and over started an apprenticeship.
The wider apprenticeship programme has expanded significantly since 2010, and the proportion of older apprentices has also increased. In 2009-10, 0.1 per cent of all apprenticeship starts involved learners aged 60-plus; by 2014-15, this proportion had grown to 0.7 per cent. And with the government committed to reaching its target of creating 3 million apprenticeships by the end of the current Parliament in 2020, numbers are set to continue rising in the coming years.
‘Too old for a career’
Brown started a new job as a funeral care operative earlier this year, and shortly afterwards was offered the chance to begin his apprenticeship.
“It’s a strange concept, isn’t it?” he says. “The apprenticeship itself is a bonus for me, because I love studying. I did all sorts of courses when I was in the police. When [the Co-op] said about doing an apprenticeship, I thought, ‘Yes, I suppose so.’
“I started [the apprenticeship] because I’m of that generation that is still fit and healthy and feels young, and I really don’t want to retire yet. It’s a strange label to put on someone at my age. We’re all doing the same course; we’ll all get the same qualifications.
“I probably won’t need to use those qualifications, because I’m too old to have a career, but for younger people who are joining there’s a very good career structure within the funeral care industry. It’s a very worthwhile job.”
While few would question the value in workers of all ages developing their skills, some doubt whether apprenticeship provision for people in the twilight of their working lives is an appropriate use of public funds, especially if they do not end up using their qualifications.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, is a passionate advocate of the benefits of lifelong learning. Although he believes that it is positive for people like Brown to have the opportunity to pursue a training course, he argues that an apprenticeship might not be the most appropriate route for them to take.
“It’s great to hear about Robert who is learning new skills at the age of 67,” he says. “More and more people will be doing just the same in their forties, fifties and sixties as we live longer, and need and want to stay active, keep earning and not retire into poverty.
“I’d like to see more advice and training provided for people in midlife. The apprenticeship programme will work for some older workers, but is not necessarily the best way to help people retrain into new jobs and ways of working. Shorter and more flexible learning and training would be easier to access for those out of work or at risk of redundancy – both situations where an apprenticeship would not work so well.”
But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has no qualms about apprenticeship funding being used to improve the skills of people in their sixties. Apprenticeships, it insists, are for all people of working age, and are created by employers, who are free to make their own recruitment decisions.
“We are committed to creating successful career opportunities for all,” a spokesperson said. “Apprenticeships are paid jobs for people of all ages, and it is important that those older workers who find themselves needing to retrain have the platform to do so.
“Employers know the diverse skills their business needs – that’s why it’s in their hands to decide who they take on and train as an apprentice.”
Brown argues that his apprenticeship gives him a deeper understanding of his new career. He sees funeral care as a way of giving back to the community and helping people.
“When you join the Co-op you get excellent training so that you can do the role that you’ve been employed to do,” he says. “But doing the apprenticeship feeds my imagination, allows me to research deeper the role that I’m doing [and], in fact, the whole sphere of funeral care.”
“Funeral care is giving something back to the community – it’s helping people when they’re at their very lowest depth. And I find that so rewarding. I really do.”
New pathways in later life
There were just 220 apprentices aged 60 and over in 2007-08. In the six months between August 2015 and January 2016, there were 1,350 apprenticeship starts in that age group.
The biggest growth took place between 2009-10 and 2010-11, when the coalition government came to power, signalling the end of the Train to Gain programme and an ambitious expansion in apprenticeships.
In just 12 months, the number of 60-plus apprenticeship starts increased by more than 800 per cent, from 400 to 3,890. The overall number then decreased for three consecutive years, before going up once more in 2014-15 to 3,410.
The proportion of people doing an apprenticeship after 60 is small compared with other age groups – 0.7 per cent of all apprenticeship starts last year involved learners aged 60 and over. But it does show that people are considering new career paths later on in their working lives, and see an apprenticeship as a way of improving their employability.