Just the job

Dorothy Walker visits a workshop in Bristol where the unemployed are helping themselves to computer skills
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Three years ago, at 55, Maurice King was on the dole and seemed to have no prospects. Today the former engineer is an expert on the Internet, even introducing its mysteries to heads of state. And he and his 15 colleagues have been so successful that their formula is now being franchised around the world.

Maurice works for the South Bristol Learning Network (SBLN), formed in 1993 with government funding. The aim was to equip people with the skills to use technology in an area of high unemployment and low morale.

Staff were recruited from the local Job Centre. The advertisement called for communications skills and an interest in the community but didn't mention technology. Many successful applicants had never been near a computer, but they helped one another to learn.

Since then, supported by ICL's Lifelong Learning group, they have trained more than 3,000 people from all walks of life, in their CyberSkills workshops at Bristol.

Anyone can attend a public workshop for pounds 25. Some who arrive are so worried about making fools of themselves that they refuse to give their full names. But after three hours using CD-Roms, sending e-mail and navigating the Web, the greatest problem most have is tearing themselves away from the computers to go home.

When they leave, they may not have covered the A-Z of confusing jargon normally associated with cyberspace, but they've been there, done that, and begun to understand what it can do for them. They have also talked about how they could use technology to develop their skills, just like their non-techie tutors, who come from the same background.

The SBLN also holds workshops aimed at business people, and tailor-made sessions for companies. SBLN's Sally Abrams says: "There is no other way to do this. In offices, there is very little training - people say, `Here's the technology, off you go'. And business people don't want to go back to college for a course."

Last year, the group demonstrated the use of the Internet at the G7 summit in Brussels. They also briefed the Commons IT Committee and put on a roadshow for the House of Lords. From as far afield as Sweden and Singapore, people began to beat a path to their door, asking how they could repeat the Bristol experience.

With the help of ICL, the SBLN's self-taught experts formed the CyberSkills Association to franchise it around the world. There are now 13 CyberSkills Development Agencies in Britain, plus one in the US. Swedish and Australian groups will follow soon.

Meanwhile, back in Bristol, when he has a moment to spare, Maurice loads a PC into the back of his car and does impromptu workshops in Scout halls, OAP clubs and libraries. "I'm the only one with the bottle to do the roadshows," he says.

If he lost his job now, what would he do? "I'd be a lot more confident," he says. "I could create my own opportunities. I would start my own company, or, if I went back to engineering, I'd drive it forward, and show them how they are missing out"

The CyberSkills Association (0117-927 9995).

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