The CIPD’s Head of Public Policy, Ben Willmott, has given evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session, on 24 January at the House of Commons, covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In the UK there are more than 1 million individuals over the age of 50 who are currently unemployed. The employment rate for people aged between 53 and 67 drops by 64 percentage points, according to research by the CIPD and the International Longevity Centre.

The fall in employment can be explained through a number of factors. Mr Willmott said that older workers are more likely to have health conditions which may affect their ability to remain in work and they are more likely to have caring responsibilities. In addition, there are number of stereotypes and biases about older people that can influence managers’ recruitment and development decisions, for example that they are less motivated or unwilling or unable to learn new skills.

Asked to comment on the Government’s Fuller Working Lives strategy, Mr Willmott commended the strategy’s employer-led approach, its sector focus, and the efforts to disseminate best practice.  However, he added that the strategy would benefit from paying more attention to the needs of small businesses as at present support is ‘inadequate and fragmented’.

Mr Willmott recommended to the Committee that they consider the CIPD’s People Skills initiative as a model for delivering local, high-quality support to small businesses to improve people management capability. First run as a pilot scheme in Hackney, Stoke-on-Trent and Glasgow, People Skills offered up to two days of free, locally-delivered, basic people management support to small businesses.

The evaluation report found evidence that the programme had helped improve labour productivity, workplace relations and financial performance in the small firms that received the support. To achieve a step change in the employment rate of older workers, Mr Willmott argued, the Government must work to build basic people management capability among small businesses so they think more strategically about how they invest in their people and understand the value of hiring and retaining older workers.

Commenting on what employers could do, Mr Willmott highlighted the important role HR professionals play in creating workplaces that can adapt to the needs of older workers, ensuring that recruitment, retention and retraining of older workers is seen as integral to business performance. Line managers should also be properly trained so that they can manage people effectively, irrespective of their background, identity or circumstance.

A particular challenge with older workers is the prevalence of long-term health conditions. Mr Willmott highlighted that only 40% of employers provide access to an occupational health service, which means that too often older workers are not able to access the help they need to manage health conditions and remain in work. There is both a moral and business case for employers to do more on this front. Willmott also questioned the recent decision by the Government to axe the Fit for Work referral service, given the increasing need for occupational health advice and support for small firms in light of the UK’s ageing workforce.

Finally, Mr Willmott set out the benefits of flexible working, which is a key to unlocking employment opportunities across a number of under-represented groups in the labour market. Jobs that are designed with flexibility in mind can make it easier for older workers to continue enjoying fuller and longer working lives. Flexible working can help workers manage their caring responsibilities as well as support those with health conditions stay in or return to work in a phased manner after a period of ill health. Mr Willmott pointed out that, while over 90% of employers say they offer flexible working to staff, the actual uptake among workers in the last 20 years has plateaued.

The biggest barrier to unlocking the potential of flexible working is negative perceptions among many business leaders and line managers towards flexible working practices. Mr Willmott suggested that the Government work with employers, professional and sectoral bodies on innovative flexible working campaigns to make flexible practices more inclusive.

The CIPD will continue to engage with the Government on its Fuller Working Lives strategy in the coming months.

You can watch the full session here:

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