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Retirement timebomb: NHS Highland’s ‘urgent need’ for younger workers

Just 400 of the health board's 11,500 workers are under 24 years old.

NHS Highland sign outside Assynt House in Inverness.
The firm is workinh with NHS Highland to deal with issues. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

NHS Highland chiefs say there’s an “urgent need” to recruit younger staff, amid concerns about its ageing workforce.

The health board has around 11,500 members of staff.

But fewer than 400 are aged 24 or under — with the average worker double this age.

Approximately half of these young recruits work in nursing and midwifery.

Papers discussed by the NHS Highland board yesterday say there are “multiple critical issues” which need to be addressed.

These centre around the training time required for roles, the loss of experienced colleagues and the impact of more physical roles on an older workforce.

Bosses say it’s “vital” that managers know what’s lying ahead so they can better plan for succession or retention and keep services running.

This is particularly crucial in remote and rural areas, they say, “where the fragility of small teams is high.”

‘Significant number’ at or over retirement age

NHS Highland says the median age of its workforce is 48 – meaning half its workers are older than this, and half are younger.

While this hasn’t changed since Covid, it does have more over-55s on its books than it did before the pandemic.

Raigmore Hospital. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson
Raigmore Hospital. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson

And the average retirement age has increased from 61 to 63, highlighting “a risk to the sustainability of the workforce”.

Overall the health board employs more than 2,000 people who are over 57 years old, including 1,000 over 61.

It says the lower pay bands – one and two – have the highest proportion of staff working past the average retirement age.

‘Retire and return’ policy could keep older staff in workforce

The health board says it’s continuing to investigate better methods of succession and wider workforce planning.

It’s also launching a retire and return policy to find ways to keep older staff in “safe and manageable” roles, rather than losing their experience and knowledge.

At yesterday’s board meeting, chief executive Pam Dudek spoke more broadly about NHS Highland’s approach to equal opportunities.

NHS Highland chief executive Pam Dudek. Image: Jason Hedges/ DC Thomson
NHS Highland chief executive Pam Dudek. Image: Jason Hedges/ DC Thomson

This includes its support of under-represented groups who may have “traditionally struggled” with finding work.

“A health pathway has been introduced with S4-and-above students at schools across the Highlands,” she said.

“And 29 young people have signed up for that.”

She added that senior managers want to gather insights about people’s experiences so they can construct a plan for what comes next.

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