If demographic predictions prove correct, by 2016 there will only be enough young people to fill a third of all the UK's jobs. Yet the Government seems determined to concentrate on the fast-dwindling under-25s when formulating its learning and skills policies.
This is the fear of organisations concerned with adult education, such as Niace (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education). It believes that not enough is being done to encourage those adults currently outside the labour market to join the workforce, including ethnic minority women, the over-50s, carers, refugees, migrants, ex-convicts and those on incapacity benefit.
As if time, childcare, language, mobility, money and confidence were not enough obstacles to overcome, these adults are now faced with a decreasing number of suitable courses, thanks to a new funding regime which diverts cash from basic skills to helping young people achieve a level 3 (A-level equivalent) or work-based GCSE equivalent qualifications.
Sue Meyer, Niace's policy director, says: "We have to get extra people as well as existing people into training. At the moment, opportunities are disappearing and we need to put the infrastructure in place before it's too late."
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, calculates the new funding arrangement announced in the 2006 budget will result in 500,000 fewer places on further education courses.
Funding is also a concern for Jennifer Adshead, head of education and training for the National Federation of Women's Institutes who also runs Denman college of further education in Oxfordshire. She believes many of her members, particularly unemployed older women, need courses in basic skills to boost their confidence. "We have set up various courses with funding from the Learning Skills Council, such as healthy living, leadership skills and public speaking, which provide stepping stones to bigger things for our members," she says. "The spending cuts will mean these, and our links with colleges, will eventually disappear."
Another large untapped resource is the refugee and migrant population. A survey for the Department of Work and Pensions in 2002 found that only 29 per cent of refugees were working. While many are highly skilled in shortage areas, such as teaching, health, social care and construction, there is an almost complete absence of educational courses to help them adapt their skills. Also, employees are unaware or anxious about hiring them and their particular needs are not covered by equal opportunity legislation.
A project consortium funded by EQUAL, called Progress GB, was established last year to help refugees and migrants develop and adapt their skills for the UK. One of its pilot projects, Upskill, re-orients those with overseas experience in accountancy, business administration, construction and health and social care. The project, based in the East Midlands, filled 93 of 100 places within the first six months.
Rob Gray, a senior project officer for Upskill, says: "Medical professionals were the only group to be relatively well served by re-orientation programmes but access varies between regions. Faced with no choice, refugees seek work outside their area that is inevitably low skilled and low paid."
The Upskill accountancy programme is especially popular because part-time training is available at FE colleges. Learners can achieve a level 4 (degree equivalent) without paying university fees. Mr Gray would like to see vocational adaptation programmes like this one available in all occupational areas.
Disabled people are another group often excluded from high skilled employment. The message coming from the British Council of Disabled People is that often those on incapacity benefit have the motivation but lack the opportunity to train.
The Government has launched high profile programmes such as Welfare to Work and Pathways to Work which are designed to encourage people to come off incapacity benefit by providing personal advisers to help them find work or training. However, the Mental Health Foundation fears Welfare to Work may mean greater financial insecurity for people with mental health problems.
People with mental health problems have the highest rate of unemployment among disabled people. While 85 per cent of mentally ill people are not earning money, most want to work.
Simone Aspis, spokeswoman for the British Council of Disabled People, says:
"We have to look beyond the obvious causes for non-participation. For some people low confidence is a problem but others have difficulty attending courses that go beyond basic skills. Continuing education should enable people to meet their full potential whatever their aspirations."
Accessibility and affordability are key determinants in adult education, but research shows the greatest barriers for the bulk of prospective learners are psychological and social. Bad memories of school, low confidence and disinterest prevent adults participating in education.
Veronica McGiveney, a former policy research officer at Niace, has written extensively on how the adult education system requires a completely new approach. "The new funding arrangement is good for courses leading to qualification but inadequate for basic skills programmes," she says. "Adult education is very much a listening process, a responsive process and translating immediate issues into a learning situation which is informal and sympathetic to their needs."
Dr McGiveney recommends more outreach programmes where people work collectively. Community groups set the agenda, such as parents who are worried about a school closure but do not know how to communicate with people in authority, or neighbours objecting to a mobile telephone mast who would like to launch a campaign.
The problem of providing education for adults appears to be meeting the competing demands for tailored individual learning, high qualifications, informal group sessions, vocational experience and basic skills training.
Alistair Thompson, policy officer at Niace, summarises: "Adult learning is extraordinarily untidy. It is great for people who fit a particular model but adults tend to squeeze learning into the corners of their lives and juggle it with other things. Society is ageing and we are going to have to look at all the people who have been on the margins and make them part of the mainstream. They will need specific advice, guidance and flexibility."
Maura Pell, 50, East Kent (pictured)
"Last year, I took a barge painting course at Denman college and it was brilliant. It was affordable and the teaching was fantastic. Having never picked up a paint brush in my life, suddenly I couldn't stop painting, I adored it. Housework, family, everything went by the board as I painted more and more watering cans and other galvanised objects d'art.
People brought things to the door for me to paint and within four months I'd used my life savings to set up my own craft shop. The shop has been a great success thanks to the incredible support of my friends at the Women's Institute.
I think it is difficult for capable ladies of my age to start a new venture. We might have dealt with marriage, child bearing, GCSE coursework, divorce and menopause, but ageism becomes a real issue and further education may seem pointless when it is virtually impossible to get a job.
For many women who are running a home and family, their own needs, educational and otherwise, come at the end of a very long list of priorities.
Before the course, I worked as my husband's secretary for 10 years. As a busy mum with a retired husband, an elderly mother and four children in further education, I had lost the plot in terms of what I wanted to do with my life. The course gave me time and space to think and make sensible long-term decisions about my future. For a desperately neglected group of adult learners, colleges like Denman are the business. It helped me find a new life at 50 and I am deeply, deeply appreciative."
Sadiye Ayvazoglu, 32, Leicester
"I am a Muslim and many Muslim women are happy to be at home. Others would like to work, but there are a lot of barriers such as exams and language, childcare and schooling. Many think they can't do anything.
When I lived in Turkey I worked in the finance department of a private company. I had dreams of a good career, but when I came here I had to start at the beginning and I was scared because the language wasn't mine. I wasn't working and it made me depressed and worried; it felt like my brain was going to sleep.
My husband wanted to gain qualifications but he needed to earn a living and so he decided I should be the one to study. I did not know where or how to get into education and I searched the newspapers and talked to people until I found a course in accountancy.
Learning has really boosted my confidence. My teachers say I am successful, but my future still seems uncertain. I would like to have a second child and to spend more time with my son, but I am worried that soon I will be too old to get a job. My friends tell me it is difficult to find work. At least I am not sitting around doing nothing any more though. A lot of people have asked me for advice and I tell them to start doing something, any kind of learning, because it opens doors. Start a course, it doesn't matter what. When you pass exams you feel good."