A new way to beat old bias

As a Government code of practice is launched to tackle ageism, Andrew Ramsay argues that a training tax is also needed to enable older workers to renew their knowledge

The engineering profession has a problem. Training engineers is costly – yet we are spendthrifts in the use we make of this precious resource. Most professional engineers don’t reach their maximum effectiveness until their early thirties, and to discard them in their early fifties in favour of cheaper engineers just out of college makes less and less sense.

That is why the Engineering Council welcomes the Government’s Code of Practice for employers on Age Diversity in Employment – or how to avoid ageism. It is a small step towards alerting employers to a valuable asset in their midst: the older employee.

However, the problem remains as to how to ensure that an older engineer’s competence continues, or is adapted to new industries.

The professional engineering bodies advocate that engineers should take responsibility for their career development by planning and documenting their continuing professional development. This can sometimes only be achieved through the co-operation, and investment, of employers. But small and medium-sized enterprises are often unwilling to pay for training during difficult trading conditions. It is even harder to justify the risk of retraining a professional from a declining industry.

The Government is to be congratulated in its efforts to change the mindset of employers and employees. We welcome the outcome of the Individual Learning Account – although the £150 funding allocated per account seems well short of the cost of a masters level course. The University for Industry may also offer older engineers a cheaper, more convenient chance of updating knowledge.

However, we seem doomed to skirt round the big change that could solve the professional development problem: a training tax. At a small percentage of taxable profit, it would be readily recoverable by most responsible employers in the normal course of their human resources development programmes. By avoiding questions of scope or size of business, the tax would sidestep the collection headaches that beset the few remaining grant-levy training boards.

The models for this essentially neutral tax system exist in France and Germany. The main result in those countries has been a positive mindset and partnership approach to training, rather than just a sharing of costs.

Codes of Practice, CPD policies, independent learning accounts, the University for Industry and lifelong learning will only have a limited impact on ageism in the workplace. The only way we will make good use of our expensive engineering manpower is to make it worthwhile to train again.

Andrew Ramsay is director for engineers’ regulation at the Engineering Council