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Are you too old to be an engineer?

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has asserted that younger people are “just smarter” than older ones. We talk to Aviva and other companies about their efforts to challenge ageism.

Try to imagine someone working in the tech industry and you’ll visualise a man in his late 20s playing ping-pong and wearing designer jeans and sneakers. You wouldn’t be wrong. The average age of a Google employee is 29. As Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, now the ripe age of 35, famously said: “Young people are just smarter.”

But are they? Although there are no similar statistics available for the UK industry, it’s still clear – age may be the final barrier to be dismantled in the creation of a truly diverse tech workforce. Gareth Jones, an HR and technology consultant and CEO of Headstart, says: “The general narrative in the tech industry is age-biased and the focus is on millennials. The situation is particularly acute on the coding side of things, and there’s a general acceptance that you don’t need to worry about the fact you’re not employing older people as it’s not a politically sensitive issue in the same way that things like gender are. So while you’ve often got older people at the senior levels, when it comes to the more general business layers or hands-on tech world, the age group tends to be younger.”

Paul Owen, director of operations at the Age Diversity Forum, a social enterprise working to enhance age diversity in the workplace, has identified age discrimination as “the biggest area of bias receiving the lowest level of attention”.  

The technology industries are beginning to pay attention. They have no choice. Population predictions for the workforce in the UK make it clear that older employees will need to be recruited and retained at a far faster rate. In the next 10 years, eight million young people will leave school and university and enter the workforce. In the same time, 10 million older people will retire. By 2025, it’s predicted one in three employees will be aged over 50. By 2030, the over-50s will become the biggest demographic factor in the workforce.

“If IT has a mindset that it’s a young person’s game, they’re in for a big shock,” says Alistair McQueen, head of savings and retirement at insurance company Aviva.

Aviva has 17,000 staff in offices throughout the UK. “There was an assumption that the fastest-growing sector was younger people – fresh blood and talent. But, in reality, it’s the other end of the age spectrum. We needed to understand their mindset. So we asked them,” says McQueen. Aviva conducted a staff survey, uncovering that one in three of their staff believed age was a barrier to opportunity and identified a glass ceiling once you reached 50. “That’s not what we wanted to hear. We wanted to challenge this.”

The Aviva survey also revealed that the average length of service for this demographic was 17 years – adding up to 85,000 years of corporate memory. “This is a population who knows how to get things done,” says McQueen. “Yet they were leaving the organisation at a faster rate than the younger demographic.”

With a predicted drop in the younger population to fill their posts, Aviva thought it had to act. “The light bulb with us wasn’t altruism or paternalism, but the commercial risk,” explains McQueen.


“If IT has a mind-set that it’s a young person’s game, they’re going to be in for a big shock.”

Alistair McQueen, Head of Savings and Retirement at Aviva

John Cridland CBE’s 2017 government report ‘Independent Review of the State Pension Age’ mentioned introducing ‘MOTs’ for older employees. It was a tiny paragraph, but it was the kernel of an idea. “We thought – why don’t we put some meat on those bones?” says McQueen. So last year, Aviva piloted a ‘Midlife MOT’ for 100 members of staff aged 45 and over. It took the form of a three-hour training session on wealth, work and wellbeing particularly targeting the older workforce’s concerns. There was a 94 per cent take-up rate – larger than any other staff initiative they’d previously introduced. “This was telling us that this population was feeling abandoned,” says McQueen. “There was a huge demand. We needed to hug this population closer.”

The results were positive. After running the pilot, there was a 10 per cent increase in confidence, a 10 per cent increase in knowledge of where to go for support, and a 10 per cent increase in positive feeling towards Aviva as an employer. Since May this year, all 5,000 of Aviva’s 50-plus workforce can access a Midlife MOT. This involves face-to-face seminars, written guides, online resources and a 30-minute consultation with a financial adviser. The aim is to “prompt employees to begin making plans to support the next phase of their work, wealth and wellbeing, and identify practical steps they can take to support a fuller, more rewarding working life”. Aviva’s initiatives led them to win the Ageing Workforce Award for 2018.

There remain larger challenges. “We want to see the level of attrition slow down but we need to manage our expectations. These bigger trends will take longer to shift,” says McQueen.

Matthew Southwood, a business intelligence consultant in Aviva’s Sheffield office, was one of the beneficiaries. Aged 52, Southwood works with big data technologies. Ideally, he’d like to retire in five years but thought he wouldn’t be able to. “Before the MOT, I didn’t know you could phase retirement. Rather than cut off from 35 hours to nil, I could do it gradually. I thought I’d have to go to a supermarket and do shelf stacking if I wanted to do that,” he says.

There were additional softer benefits. “Colleagues went on it – people I’d never talked to about pensions and things like that – and we discussed between ourselves and shared ideas. It’s good to feel in similar position to others.”

Southwood is also now doing an apprenticeship in business analytics. Professor Alison Fuller, the Institute of Education’s director of research and development, and the researcher behind Do Adult Apprenticeships Work?, said: “If you ask someone to picture an apprentice they’ll more than likely conjure up an image of a school leaver. It’s a missed opportunity if a large proportion of the workforce’s capacity to learn is underestimated.”

Southwood says: “I felt a bit strange at first saying I’m doing an apprenticeship at my age, but there’s someone else doing it who’s 65!” He’s also learning Qlik in an online ‘continuous classroom’ setting. Aviva gives him time from his regular work to complete these courses.

Aviva has focused on retaining older employees. But for some mid-aged technology experts, the first hurdle is getting through the door. Job postings containing terms like ‘recent graduate’ and ‘digital native’ suggest older applicants aren’t welcome to apply.

At Landmarc, which provides support services to the Ministry of Defence and others, they’re keen to attract applicants of all ages. “We don’t just rely on online job boards,” says Adam Hudson, corporate HR manager. “We try to put up jobs in local pubs and shops. It’s about enabling people to get their CV in front of us. It’s about making the recruitment process accessible to everybody.” Landmarc’s oldest employee is 74.

The belief is that there’s a workforce ready to take up opportunities and fill skill shortages, if they are properly supported to do so. The Department for Work and Pensions 2017 strategy document ‘Fuller Working Lives’ identified, “almost one million individuals aged 50-64 who are not in employment but state they are willing to or would like to work”. These became known as the ‘missing million’.

Tideway, which is building a 25km ‘Super Sewer’ under the River Thames, introduced a ‘Returner’ programme in 2015, helping professionals to return to work after a long career break. It was the first UK employer to do so outside of banking. The programme allows returners a transition period ‘to get back up to speed’. It’s an opportunity many older workers welcome. Tideway currently has 13 returners working for it.

For Landmarc, age is a key strand in its diversity strategy. Twenty-five per cent of Landmarc’s new starters is aged 55 and over, and this figure is rising. The average age of a Landmarc employee is 51.

Part of the firm’s success in bucking the usual tech statistics lies in proactively targeting men and women who are ex-forces, often with previous engineering and technology experience of benefit to the company. It also positively supports flexible working. “We’re not fixed on a single Monday to Friday contract. We have flexible and part-time opportunities,” says Hudson. Over a quarter of over-65 staff work part-time and over half of staff training is undertaken by over-50s.

Hudson doesn’t view an older workforce as a problem, but an asset. “As an organisation we continually perform well – so age diversity has succeeded,” he says. Landmarc is a finalist in the Business Community’s Age Friendly Team Award 2019.

For Southwood at Aviva, the MOT has led to many benefits beyond better planning for his remaining working life. It has made him feel more connected to his company and colleagues. “It made me realise I’m not alone,” he says.

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