There is an episode of the BBC spin-off Young Apprentice in which Lord Sugar invites his precocious charges to the Natural History Museum. Standing against a backdrop of a dinosaur skeleton, Lord Sugar explains to his young audience that the over-50s have a lot of leisure time and a lot of disposable income – spending more than £260 billion a year.
What he neglected to mention to the bright-eyed 16- and 17-year-old wannabe apprentices lined up in front of him, is that the middle-aged are coming for their jobs, too.
Far from wasting away in armchairs browsing catalogues for electric pie makers and camera-equipped bird boxes (two of the items the young apprentices thought would sell to the over-50s), Britain’s middle-aged are signing up to become apprentices themselves on an unprecedented scale.
New government figures show that in the past year more than 34,000 people aged over 50 have started an apprenticeship, with more than a third finding jobs in business, administration and law. This week, Matthew Hancock, the Skills Minister, told the country’s middle-aged that if they want to change careers they should take up apprenticeships to ‘get and hold down skilled jobs’. Many in the autumn of their careers are heeding his advice, ripping up the rules of retirement and starting again.
Sometimes, the career change can be dramatic. Admittedly 55-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis’s decision, after winning his third Best Actor Oscar last year, to retreat to his Wicklow farmhouse to begin a five-year apprenticeship in stonemasonry and wood turning, is down to the luxury of choice rather than necessity. But there are many over-50s embarking on similarly adventurous changes.
In Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire, a retired police constable by the name of Richard (he will not give his full name for fear his former career may catch up with him) now spends his time learning the Latin names of the shrubs and trees in the 180-acre arboretum. That of the monkey puzzle, Araucaria araucana, is particularly difficult to make stick. The 55-year-old works full time as a horticulturalist at the gardens, after completing a six-month contract then training at nearby Sparsholt College.
“I retired in 2010 after 30 years with Hampshire Police but I always knew that I needed to do something else,” he says. “My only experience had been working on my own garden, which I had done for years. At college there were some younger people there, in their 20s and 30s, but I didn’t feel that out of place at all.
“It’s good to take the opportunity to learn things and to get to grips with something new. I’m not frightened of asking questions. The experience I’ve had gives you a certain confidence. There are still some people from the police who I keep in contact with, but there are no raised eyebrows at what I’m doing now.”
No doubt better health and increased life expectancy plays a major part in the generational shift. After all, it is estimated that by 2020 a third of Britain’s workforce will be over 50. But apprenticeships are also rescuing many from the fear of being left on the scrapheap. Currently more than 425,000 people aged over 50 are unemployed – the highest rate in any age group – with half of them out of work for 12 months or more.
In the past year, 11,790 people aged over 50 have found work through apprenticeships in health care and public services.
Laureen Thaddeus, who turns 60 in May, says it has transformed her life. After leaving her previous job working in a health centre to care for her dying father in the final two years of his life, she worried she would never get back into work. Now she is studying for qualifications in business administration while working at Forest View care home, in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.
“I left school with O-Levels and worked all my life to bring up my 32-year-old daughter. But after two years out of employment I thought, ‘I am never going to be able to get back into a job as a 57-year-old’.
“This apprenticeship has been absolutely super. It gives you a great background and insight into your work. I would definitely recommend it for an older person. It is lovely to feel you are still learning something at this later stage in life.”
Mr Hancock is not the only minister to feel that the wealth of skills among older workers is key to strengthening the British economy. Indeed, last month the Government scrapped a funding scheme that required apprentices over 24 to take out ‘advanced learning loans’ to cover the cost of training. Now these costs are met by the Government and employers.
But aside from the cold economics, many say taking on apprenticeships later in life can transform what the Prince of Wales calls ‘the lack of value’ suffered by the middle-aged unemployed.
For Simon Vaughan-Long, that was a feeling too close for comfort when he was made redundant from his role in IT development for Barclays Bank in 2010.
“It was a troubling time,” says the father of twin 12-year-old boys whose wife Claire is a teaching assistant at a primary school. Now he is in the third and final year of a higher apprenticeship at British Telecom.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the apprentices are in their mid-20s or younger,” says the 45-year-old. “In fact, I’m the oldest apprentice in my intake. In my opinion you can treat it in one of two ways: either by saying, ‘I’m over the hill and I’m going to keep my distance’, or by saying, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’. This is a whole new chapter and it keeps me young, too.”
During the five required semesters at Yarnfield Park training and conference centre in Staffordshire, Vaughan-Long spends weeknights in student digs far away from his home in Enfield, north London. “It can be tough being away from your family but it’s about the bigger picture,” he says.
Lynn Bowring, 50, has the privilege of serving her advanced apprenticeship management diploma at the private electrical engineering contractor HVMS, closer to home in Dartford, Kent. She combines studying with her work, even taking an exam yesterday afternoon in between helping to coordinate the clear-up of the wreckage caused by the recent floods.
“I believe you are never too old to learn anything,” she says. “There are opportunities everywhere. It is about planning your day, knowing you have certain things to do and fitting the learning around that in your free time.”
Ms Bowring finishes her apprenticeship next year and admits: “It’s a long old haul.” But at the end, her plan is to gain a promotion to become a Project Manager. Like many in her position, she is determined to cast off traditional stereotypes about age and succeed in her new career.
It is a business mantra one hears again and again from the new generation of apprentices. So step away from the dinosaur, Lord Sugar, Britain’s middle-aged are waiting to be hired.