Conference hears options for getting unemployed over 50's back into work

The Senior Enterprise and Mentoring Conference has heard that a combination of more practical policies from the government, improved banking practices and an increased number of mentoring schemes is needed to help those over 50 transform their entrepreneurial dreams into reality and create new jobs and businesses.

The conference, which was held on the 14th November, was part of Global Entrepreneurship Week and was hosted by the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise. It brought together entrepreneurs, thought leaders, NGO’s and policy makers from the UK and the EU to discuss the various issues for over 50’s who are unemployed, and to hear how self-employment is now a viable option for many.

Nick Bunting, CEO of The Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise, shared some startling figures. “We are seeing the numbers of over 50s exceed those of young people for the first time and these demographic changes are something that we, as a country, need to address.

We also see that long-term unemployment continues to hit the over 50s harder than young people, with 61% of those unemployed for more than six months. With 21 million people in the UK over the age of 50, we face many challenges as an ageing society.

It is within this context that we really need to demonstrate the importance of self-employment and the continual need to raise the issues of those four million people who are classed as workless over 50. Given the demographic challenge in the UK and many parts of Europe, clearly this is a really important message.”

A major business that has clearly recognised the value of employing people over 50 is BT, which hosted the conference at its London headquarters. “At BT we know the value of age diverse teams,’ said Caroline Waters, BT’s Director of People and Policy.

“We know that the stereotypes about young people being creative and energetic are partly true. We know that the stereotypes about older people being reliable and great with customers are partly true. But the truth is that all of those characteristics are in all of the age groups. Any society that eliminates one group in favour of another is never going to thrive.

“Even though BT is an enormous company, over 70% of the businesses in our supply chain are SMEs. Why? Because they create great products and services, they are creative, they are innovative, they are responsive.

That is why social and business enterprise is the heartland of the UK economy. We know there are millions of people in this country aged over 50 who are economically inactive. That means that their own independence could be limited, but it also means that the potential value that they bring to UK plc and to our society is not being fulfilled. What PRIME does is help fill that gap.”

The Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise works to rebuild self-confidence, develop skills and harness knowledge to support the creation of new businesses through the provision of education, training, mentoring and practical business skills for the over 50s.The Prince’s Initiative was set up by HRH The Prince of Wales with the mission to enable people over the age of 50 who are out of work or facing redundancy to consider, explore and, if appropriate, prepare for self-employment and enterprise as a viable work option.

One area in which The Prince’s Initiative is especially effective, and which drove much of the debate at conference, is mentoring. Many over 50s who have attended the charity’s training courses benefit greatly from being paired up with volunteer business people who can share real-life experiences of their own and support them as they progress.

Lord Marland, Parliamentary Under Secretary of Sate for Business, Innovations and Skills, was keen to talk of the success of the government’s national mentoring scheme. “The best people to help people start up businesses are not Government,’ he said. “Civil servants have no experience of starting businesses and most MPs have never been in business: why should they suddenly have great expertise?

So we started a mentoring campaign, getting people in business to advise people starting up their business. We have also invested money to train volunteers and we have about 13,000 people who have been trained up to become mentors and our target is 27,000 within the next 12 months. This is a significant amount of people who will helpfully mentor people who want to start up their own business.”

While many over 50s have ideas, passion and drive to start their own business, support from government, banks and others is also needed, Nick said: “The role of government in supporting the over 50s to consider self employment as their way out of unemployment is vital. This is not something that we can achieve on our own.

We need to make sure that government is with us and develops a policy framework that is more than the piecemeal system that we see at the moment. We really need to move beyond treating all the over 50s as an homogenous group of people and make sure that government actually work with us.”

Lord Marland agreed that government has a role in supporting enterprise. “It is very important that Government plays a part,’ he said. “Providing we act responsibly, we can become an initiator.”

Speaking about becoming a Trade Envoy, he said: “There was no doubt that the country was in a mess. Businesses had been able to feed off of the bountiful European or British market. We didn’t have to travel or export as much as we used to back in the 80s and 90s. We had been lulled into a false sense of security with a big consumer boom, credit was readily available and, actually, it was very easy to start up a business.

You could go to the bank, borrow money and, if you had a product, you would probably also be able to get venture capital or investment. Of course, now we are in a totally different situation. We are back to the days of the 70s, where we have to concentrate on far more different things and work a lot harder to achieve any form of return in the current environment.”

But Lord Marland was critical of the role that banks have played in supporting SMEs and new businesses. “We recognise that bankers have been woeful in supporting new initiatives,’ he said. “They are been woeful in supporting existing initiative.

All they do is, the moment it looks like a business is recovering, they turn the screws on that business and force it even hard. I think it is disgraceful. The pressure they are putting on some of the small and media sized businesses, who cannot fight back, is absolutely shocking and they should be reviled for it.”

The conference, which was part of the EU-funded Senior Enterprise project to raise awareness of the opportunities available to the over 50s and to support, partner and advise in setting up new businesses, closed with The Sage One Senior Entrepreneur of the Year Awards 2012 to celebrate the commercial achievements and diversity of over 50s entrepreneurs.

Nick Goode, head of award sponsors Sage One said: “The winners proved in showcasing their achievements and demonstrating that being entrepreneurial has nothing to do with age or experience. At Sage One we are firm believers that business should, and can, be easy.

All it takes is a great idea – with the right tools and support in place to grow it into a great business.  There has never been such an opportunity to succeed in business, with the tools and technology we have at our disposal.