Returnerships are a UK government initiative designed specifically for older workers – those returning from a career break or who are looking for upskilling or retraining. While little detail has been made available, the idea has been broadly welcomed by commentators.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced returnerships in the Spring Budget as part of a package of measures to reduce the number of economically inactive people in the UK, including people who have taken early retirement. As the country adapts to working for longer, the government has committed to upskilling and retraining workers of all ages.
Returnerships are a new offer targeted at the over-50s, which bring together the government’s existing skills programmes, focusing on flexibility and previous experience to reduce training length. They will promote accelerated apprenticeships, Sector-based Work Academy Programme (SWAP) placements and Skills Bootcamps to the over-50s.
This will support better access to retraining and allow workers of all ages to engage with second career opportunities. Returnerships will receive £63 million from government for an additional 8,000 Skills Bootcamps places in 2024-25 in England, and 40,000 new SWAP placements across 2023-24 and 2024-25 in England and Scotland.
Announcing the initiative on 15 March 2023, Hunt said: “With my right honourable friend the education secretary, we will introduce a new kind of apprenticeship targeted at the over-50s who want to return to work.
“They will be called Returnerships and operate alongside skills boot camps and sector-based work academies. They will bring together our existing skills programmes to make them more appealing for older workers, focusing on flexibility and previous experience to reduce training length.”
A new digital “Mid-life MOT” will also be introduced to help older workers understand what their employment choices now mean for the longer term – reaching 40,000 people a year, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD, said: “The introduction of returnerships, and other support on skills development for older workers, is a step in the right direction to help older workers access the development and support they may need to get back into work. Increasing access to the mid-life MOT through Universal Credit will also be a helpful step.”
“However, the government must strengthen its ambition on skills investment as part of its plans to boost growth. We need to see a bigger plan from government to raise investment in skills across the workforce, which has been falling in recent years. In particular, we need to see reform of the apprenticeship levy, which has acted as a handbrake on employer investment in skills and coincided with a sharp fall in apprenticeships for young people.”
Andy Briggs, group CEO of Phoenix Group and the UK government business champion for older workers, agreed the returnerships were a positive step to ensuring that older workers aren’t forgotten: “We know that people are living longer and we cannot address UK productivity without using the talents of all ages in the workforce. For people to work longer and to remain in meaningful work, working practices need to change, which will benefit the UK economy, businesses, and individuals.
“This means that work should be ‘levelled up’ for a much wider group of people, with more flexibility and more opportunities to recruit, retrain and retain colleagues. Businesses have a responsibility to help all employees progress their careers, with both individuals and businesses benefitting from lifelong learning. More experienced, older workers offer a wealth of knowledge but are often written off or overlooked due to myths about lack of ability, desire or ambition. Age is no barrier to learning and businesses should invest for all so they enjoy the benefits of greater retention and more skilled employees.”
Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, said that while we wait for further details of returnerships scheme to be released, employers may need to consider the type of contract, pay and benefits such workers will receive.
“Employers should also recognise that the wants and needs of over-50s may vary from younger workers, so put measures in place to directly meet their expectations,” he said. “For example, they may be more in favour of part-time and job-sharing arrangements; phased retirement options; enhanced family-related leave and pay, including grand-parental leave; private health schemes; and increased pension contributions.”
Anne Green, professor of regional economic development at the University of Birmingham, said: “The announcement of a new ‘Returnerships’ apprenticeship targeted at the over 50s can be interpreted as some recognition that this age group often feels that existing skills programmes are not so well geared to their needs as they could be.
“Similarly, increasing the number of 50+ Universal Credit claimants who receive mid-life MOTs to 40,000 a year to provide guidance before retirement is intended to stem early exit from the labour market. However, it needs to be recognised that the demand side of the labour market matters too and what many over 50s are seeking is flexibility in their working lives.”
‘Returnership’ risks confusion
The word “returnership” was previously used by Alok Sharma in 2019, when he was an employment minister in Theresa May’s government. Then it referred to a proposed initiative to help women back to work after caring for their children or other family members.
“Returnership” is also likely to be confused with “returnship”, which is an internship aimed at getting someone back into an often senior role after a career break. As we await further detail from government, returnerships appear to be more than an internship, as they involve upskilling and retraining, and if they include an apprenticeship, they would also lead to a qualification.