Mature-age trainees help plug nationwide skills shortage, but ageism still rife

It seems right around the country and across industries, the creatures are the same – there’s not enough workers.

With the country’s unemployment rate hovering at historic lows, the booming jobs market is encouraging older Australians to retrain, in the hope of increasing their employability.

At the start of the pandemic, Jeremey Murray found the company he was working for was struggling to survive.

Not content to stay on JobKeeper, and finding it hard to find another role in the corporate world — which he puts down in large part to his age — the 56-year-old decided to swap spreadsheets for baking sheets.

A man in a chef's outfit prepares food for baking in a kitchen.
Jeremey Murray left the corporate world behind to become a pastry chef. (ABC News: Jade Barker)

“I thought, ‘well, I’ve always loved to bake, I’ve always loved to cook, why don’t I see if I can make it a career?'”

Mr Murray signed up to an 18-month patisserie training course. He still has a few more theory units to go, but is already successfully running a baking business from home, which he supplements with casual work at catering companies.

“They’re crying out for pastry chefs, they’re crying out for chefs. So in many ways I get to choose where I want to work,” he said.

He’s part of a growing number of Australians re-skilling and pivoting careers later in life.

A close-up shot of biscuits on a baking tray in a kitchen with a man's hands and a red kitchen appliance nearby.
Mr Murray says it makes sense to put his love of baking to good use. (ABC News: Jade Barker)

Huge spike in mature age apprentices

In Western Australia, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, more than 4,000 of the state’s apprentices and trainees are currently over the age of 45 – a figure that’s more than doubled in the past two years.

It’s a similar story nationally, with more than 39,000 mature-age apprentices and trainees, up more than 70 percent from before the pandemic.

Researchers say this should come as little surprise as older generations have proven their adaptability.

“This is the generation that really innovated a lot of those changes in the workforce that we’re now reaping the benefit of,” explained Amanda Davies, head of the UWA’s School of Social Sciences.

A tight head shot of a smiling woman with blonde hair.
Professor Amanda Davies says older generations have proven their adaptability.

“When we look at the baby boomer cohort, it’s distinctly different from previous generations that may have stayed in a job or had the attitude of staying in one sector of employment for a very long time,” Professor Davies said.

“We already have 20 years or so of data that shows that the baby boomer generation have led the way in having multiple careers across their working life.”

Pandemic forced people to reassess careers

Sally Mlikota runs a recruitment agency in Cairns. She says around half of the people looking for work on her books are over 45 years old, a number that has increased since the start of the pandemic.

Many of those mature-age workers are taking advantage of government schemes and other resources to upskill and pivot.

Sally wears corporate attire and glasses standing in front of a sign saying teamwork
Sally Mlikota says half the people on her books are over the age of 45.(ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

“We’re not talking about someone who’s been a baker all their life, all of a sudden becoming an accountant,” Ms Mlikota said.

“We’re talking about someone who’s perhaps worked in an office, but never specialized in finance, or they might have been a teacher and they’ve got the communication skills and they’re adapting to work in an office.”

Ms Mlikota says the pandemic forced many to reassess their careers, and their retirements.

“You had a really low interest rate, so people’s pensions weren’t paying as much as they were hoping,” she said.

“Plus, people get bored quite quickly and want to get back into work.”

Ageism still rife, despite skills shortage

Despite this willingness and desire for older Australians to retrain and stay in the workforce, reports of ageism are rampant.

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