March 25, 2010 / 6:35 AM / 7 years ago

An apprentice at 70

LONDON (Reuters) - The last time Terry Robinson was an apprentice, when he was 15, he was expected to make the tea and sweep up behind the tradesmen. Now he's taking multiple choice exams behind a computer.

"As the years clock by your ability to retain information does diminish," said the 70-year old, who is currently a customer adviser for British home improvements store B&Q and studying to reach supervisor level.

"It is much more difficult past your 60s -- it's not impossible, but you have to drive harder."

Robinson, one of 150 employees chosen by the company to join its apprenticeship program, is not the company's oldest employee -- 95-year old Sydney Prior claims that title -- but he is one of a handful on the scheme enhancing their skills as they keep earning into official retirement age.

"The reason I'm in is not monetary," said Robinson, whose work supplements what he calls a reasonable state pension, plus small funds accrued in his former job.

"I just couldn't wind down."

Over a quarter of store employees at B&Q, which is part of Kingfisher plc, are over 50. Its embrace of older workers dates back to late 1980s, when it opened a store in Macclesfield staffed entirely by older workers, which it called "a huge success."

Initially B&Q thought older workers might require more training than their younger colleagues but the trial disproved this, says the company, which also employs a similar proportion of under-25s.

It declined to comment on the impact of its policy on labor costs, but said older workers have value with their extensive life experience, and their skills -- for example, in wiring plugs -- can be of help to customers.

Older workers have also shown low levels of absenteeism and a flexibility to work schedules that mirrors its business demand.

"One of our main achievements has been to develop an age- neutral working policy, removing the retirement age over 15 years ago, along with any age criteria in relation to recruitment or benefits," said Leon Foster-Hill, B&Q's Diversity and Engagement Adviser.

Robinson, who served for a time in the Royal Air Force in the 1960s, says part of his role is in mentoring junior staff, many of whom do not bring strong social skills to their roles. He also worries about their prospects in years to come.

"I try and explain that the reason I'm reasonably well off is the fact I was encouraged many years ago to save for retirement," he said. "Unless something is done, they're going to be in poverty when they retire -- it does concern me, it really does.

"Still, I suppose when you're at an age when the hormones are raging, you're not going to think about saving."

Reporting by Sara Ledwith

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