Entrepreneurship and the over 50s

Last week, I discussed entrepreneurship in Wales with the director of Prime Cymru, one of the Prince of Wales’ charities offering economic support for the over-50s.

Demographically, older workers are becoming a critical issue within the UK economy and the statistics clearly show that the over-50s will become the most significant part of the labour force over the next two decades.

For example, the number of over-50-year-olds in the UK is expected to rise by a quarter from 19.8 million in 2005 to 24.5 million by 2020, and by 2030, this number will have reached 27 million, which equates to 40% of the total UK population.

Of course, this is not reflected in their presence in the employment market. For example, last week’s Labour Market statistics showed that 33.6% of those aged between 50 and retirement age in Wales are economically inactive, mainly due to a history of relatively depressed manufacturing economies and a higher than average number of sick and disabled people.

Indeed, Prime Cymru’s own research suggests that the chances of anyone beyond the age of 50 returning to work once they have left it on grounds of ill health or disability are small. Worse still, their chances decline as their period of unemployment increases.

One of the key barriers is education and skills, with many lacking formal qualifications or having skills that were directly related to industries in decline or that have closed down. There is also reluctance among some employers to pay for training for older staff because of perceived shorter payback times.

It is estimated that about 40,000 over-50s across Wales would like to return to work if barriers could be overcome. For example, those who are carers could come back to work if there was a willingness to facilitate flexible working arrangements, while direct and easy access to training could overcome the educational barriers to this group. Improved employer attitudes and practices towards older workers could also overcome the discrimination which is endemic about this age group in employment. However, if older workers cannot find a job in mainstream employment, then one of the alternatives is to establish their own business and work for themselves.

Clearly, as the proportion of young people in the UK declines, it would be expected that a higher proportion of new businesses will be started by older people and, as such, it is important to consider which support mechanisms, such as finance, IT training, awareness raising, mentoring, and personal development, need to be established to encourage and support this trend.

In Wales, Prime Cymru helped to create more than 1,400 businesses as part of Potentia – the Welsh Assembly Government’s pre-start programme. More importantly, about 40% of the over-50s who were supported in becoming self-employed had previously been economically inactive.

By employing a team of client advisers and outreach workers, the organisation supported those older people who wanted to become self-employed. Their support was predominantly on raising awareness of self-employment as an option through workshops to explore ideas and the use of mentors to provide encouragement and advice.

Once Prime believed that their clients were in a position to start up a business, they then passed them onto one of the main enterprise agencies for the next steps in developing their business.

However, in March 2007 and despite creating 2,000 jobs through the programme, PrimeCymru’s funding was stopped by the Assembly as it decided, without any explanation, to mainstream enterprise services.

As a result, and contrary to the accepted thinking on enterprise support, there are no longer any specific services for the different types of individuals – older people, young people, ethnic minorities, women – who may wish to start a business.

Prime Cymru continues to offer a scaled down start-up programme but could, with the right financial assistance, play a more significant role in encouraging older workers to either start their own business or, at the very least, to become economically active.

With the time-bomb of an increasingly ageing population ticking away, it is clear that more needs to be done to support this age group in making a real contribution to the Welsh economy.

I hope that there will be encouragement and help from our politicians in securing Prime Cymru’s future and ensuring that it gets the full backing it needs to support the “over-50s entrepreneurs” across Wales.

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