Jeremy Hunt’s plan to plug skills gaps with retirees could work, based on the returning IT contractors we’re placing

A couple of weeks ago, chancellor Jeremy Hunt said he’d like people to get out of retirement and back into work to help with plugging the skills gap, writes Matt Collingwood, managing director of IT recruitment company VIQU.

Once upon a time, retirement meant just that – retirement! But over the last 18 months or so, I know of a number of IT professionals (former permies and contractors) who have done exactly what Mr Hunt wants -- headed back to the workplace.

Covid the catalyst

The reasons given for returning are varied. Some told me they had retired early to enjoy life, but covid underlined the downsides of being stuck indoors. One returning techie said: “I’ve discovered I don’t want to be at home so much”.

An IT contractor I know is now out of retirement and contracting for a major retail company in the East Midlands. They run a legacy Cobol CICS mainframe (a 40-year-old technology), and lucky for him, there simply hasn’t been new mainframe developers coming through, so he’s grabbed himself an £850 a day contract, working a couple of days a week to inflate his monthly pension payments.

Return of the contractors of ‘98

On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed getting one developer back into work just this month who I first placed back in 1998, as a Visual Basic 6 Developer. He’s back at the same site some 25 years later, working on an insurance platform he helped build. He wrote the original documentation for it too!

This movement of people from retirement to workplace is not from the contractor side alone. We have had a number of clients asking if our staffing business can reach out to candidates who have removed themselves from the jobs market because they felt like their careers were at a good stopping point.

Where job boards come into play

To land these tried and tested techies is a bit of a process. Some job boards delete registered CVs every two years or so. But others display CVs from when they first got uploaded, potentially over a decade ago. When you couple my professional network which I have built up over 27 years in recruitment with these ‘old’ CVs, it grants me access to thousands of inactive candidates, including retirees, with incredible skillsets.

Let me be very clear. This two-fold process is absolutely not about favouring someone based solely on their age -- that would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. But old CVs bolted on with who-you-know (plus maybe what-you-know in terms of openings in the market), is a way for us agents to reach a wider pool of amazing and talented contractors.

What’s different about working with IT contractors who recently retired?

  • Their motivations are different. It’s often due to their passion for tech / what they do
  • Legacy technology – these individuals have knowledge and experience with legacy technology that those individuals newer to a career in tech would never have had (or want) exposure to
  • “A greater depth of experience” (a client’s words -- not mine)

What are the potential issues or challenges when retired IT contractors return to the fold?

  • For most, it’ll not be a long-term gig – most retirees who return want a short 3-6 month contract, with a view to then getting back to retirement. That’s something chancellor Hunt will need to factor-in if he’s serious about returnees filling skills gaps.
  • There’s other time constraints and considerations that even recent retirees have that could cut short how often or sustainable they are as a solution to bridging gaps. Andy, an old contractor of mine, told me he’s back to contracting five days a week from October to March “while it’s cold.” And then he’ll be straight back to his holiday home in Devon to enjoy the summer!
  • At least half of tech returnees we speak to don’t want to risk stress; burnout, or getting overly involved, so they want three days of work max. Call it ‘part-time retirement.’
  • Returnees know what they want – and won’t suffer fools or people trying to flex their requirements. Many such individuals will be drawing down on private pensions, so some don’t have the need for cash to pay mortgages and school fees. Therefore, they have the luxury of being picky and rejecting assignments that don’t match exactly what they’d like to do.

Is the influx of retired techies bad news for the IT contractor workforce?

Reading about Andy and other retired freelancers joining you again, IT contractors might deduce that the likes of their old PM being back on the market means only one thing -- extra competition.

But I would look at it more as an opportunity if I were a contractor. You can now sleep easy knowing that you can retire and come back into the professional labour market for computer freelancers whenever you want!

If you possess a niche technical skillset, you can drop out and back in, safe in the knowledge that there will always be a need for someone like you.

Finally, nobody’s eating your lunch

Additionally, I really would stress the fact that these individuals re-entering the workforce probably aren’t going to be taking contracts that you would be interested in. Some will take on contracts with legacy technologies that you have no knowledge of, and others will be looking to dip in and out for fun, with very short-term contracts. They aren’t career contractors, nor are they arriving back on the market at a rate you need to worry about. With many engagers at the moment feeling hard up, that’s one part of the chancellor’s plan which does add up!

Profile picture for user Matt Collingwood

Written by Matt Collingwood

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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