Watch Live: PMQs and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers budget
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The Chancellor of the Exchequer today delivered his “back-to-work” budget with the hope of tackling employment rates. Compared to other wealthy countries, official statistics show Britain’s labour force is much smaller than it was before Coronavirus swept the nation. Since the pandemic began, some 600,000 people have not returned to the workforce, the majority of whom have taken early retirement which has in turn had a major impact on the workforce. To combat this, Jeremy Hunt announced plans which would see the over-50s early retirees — who he told the Times could have a “rich life” away from “the golf course” — gain new skills. But now, experts have told Express.co.uk that early retirees “simply do not want to return to working full-time on-site” with the reforms not suiting the majority.
The bulk of those who have left the workforce is those aged between 50 and 64, with many remaining off work because of long-term sickness, according to the Bank of England (BoE).
Both the Treasury and the BoE identified the reduction in older workers as being the key factor behind the current labour shortages. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report, which concluded in December of last year, found that there were three other major factors behind why jobs remained unfilled. They included increasing sickness, changes in migration structure, and an ageing population.
Mr Hunt has said that the budget will “break down the barriers” in getting people back to work by targeting those over 50.
He is taking three steps, including offering skills training boot camps and “returnships”, which he said will be shorter than an apprenticeship. This, he says, will “focus on flexibility” while “taking previous experience into account, shortening the length of time they have to be in training”.
However, some are now saying that the pandemic made many, predominantly those who are skilled and high earners, realise what they want out of life, meaning it is now “unrealistic” that they would bother to return.
Martin Hartley is chief commercial officer of consulting firm emagine Consulting, which supports the likes of HSBC, and a member of the Bank of England decision-maker panel, said the plans will not work for the majority.
He told Express.co.uk: “I think it is unrealistic to expect that great swathes of the over-50s who have already decided to stop working are going to come back to the workforce and retrain in a completely different industry.
“The proposals could potentially have some upside for people who are unskilled and don’t really have any career but the numbers there are so small. So, overall, in the unskilled workforce, I can see that it might be advantageous and beneficial but in the trained and skilled workforce, I don’t think it will work.”
Although Mr Hunt told the House of Commons that he prefers to describe the over-50s as “experienced”, experts said this was not how the over-50s are being made to feel when applying for jobs. One worker, who did not wish to be named, explained that they were often viewed as “inflexible”, lacking the “cultural fit” or simply too expensive to hire.
And while the number of job vacancies is steadily declining, it is still almost 40 percent higher than it was pre-pandemic. There are now 1.13 million vacancies, according to ONS figures, compared to 1.3 million early last year, and 823,000 in the three months before February 2020.
To bring this number down, Jeff Middleton, head of employment at global law firm Hill Dickinson, said flexibility is what needs to be pushed as these people do not want to return to full-time on-site work.
Also speaking to Express.co.uk, he said: “They don’t need extra money, so there is very little financial incentive for them to return to work. Early retirees are much more likely to be tempted back into working part-time and flexibly.
“The promised reforms to flexible working do not go far enough. Nobody wants to start a new job, and then wait two months for a decision on their flexible working application. If they are really serious about getting early retirees back into work, the Chancellor should have committed to requiring job adverts to state the flexibility on offer up front.”
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Similarly, Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, described the Government’s expectation that over-50s will want to return to a full-time, 37.5-hour week as archaic.
This, she explained, would also benefit those who are caregivers or with long-term health conditions who want and can work but can only do so in a “reduced way”.
She told Express.co.uk: “The Government must see that people don’t want the jobs that are on offer. It’s old-fashioned to think work divides neatly into units of thirty-seven and half hours per week.
“We’ve seen the success of the four-day week experiment. Its accomplishment was changing how people saw their relationship with time at work. More needs to be done to design jobs that fit contemporary lifestyles, and not just sticking with traditional working patterns.”
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