Employment: Ousted executives pool skills to fight back: Self-help groups and short recreational breaks are assisting redundant professionals in their struggle

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EVERY Thursday night, members of the Executive Association gather in a management dining room at Marconi Instruments in St Albans. All are out of work, their prime goal to get a job.

This is why they have turned to the self-help group. Founded 18 months ago, it now has about 150 members. They are keen to learn how best to market existing skills and acquire new ones: the group provides opportunities for networking and brainstorming, hammering out ideas, as well as helping to formulate survival strategies and staving off depression.

The white-collar recession has hit the city, north of London, hard. Three years ago, there was just a smattering of redundant executives; now 45 per cent of registered claimants are categorised as professionals and executives, one of the highest percentages in the region. In a tight labour market, age is a big hurdle. Norman Gerald, the spritely 60-year-old who chairs the association, said: 'From the mid-30s upwards, someone will tell you that you're too old for the job.'

For those who had stayed with the same company for decades, the culture shock of redundancy is especially acute. Some members from very big companies have left with statutory redundancy pay and no outplacement counselling. 'The job for life has disappeared for many people. Firms are keen on short-term contracts. If you are not on the staff, they don't have to make you redundant,' Mr Gerald said.

The association wants to help members who are eager to become entrepreneurs and is pressing the local training and enterprise council to make empty office space available for nursery businesses.

For Graham Radband, 42, whose last full-time job was as a senior business analyst, ageism has so far stymied hopes of a permanent job in information technology. 'People are being declared brain dead at 35. It's such a waste of talent.'

When Mr Radband lost his job in 1992, he fired off 450 letters on spec to prospective employers, plus 150 direct job applications. But all he got was six months' work in a software house through a friend. He is now eager to upgrade his skills. 'A year in IT is like a decade in any other industry. Things move so fast. The danger is you can become trapped in a cycle. If you can't get your skills updated, you can't get back to work, and you can't accept a low-paid job because of commitments.' Government schemes cannot help Mr Radband with the kind of sophisticated training he needs - and the courses cost about pounds 3,000.

The association has had some success in helping members find temporary jobs, but it is moving into direct marketing: a skills register, listing available talents, is to be sent to local employers. A member can be in several categories. 'Skills are logged on our database. We are saying to employers: these are the skills, tell us which you are interested in, and we'll find you the bodies,' Mr Gerald said.

The experience of David Richards, a committee member, illustrates starkly how fortunes have changed for highly qualified executives. When he finished his fast-track MBA in 1989, he was spoilt for choice. With a background in physics and a record of marketing lasers worldwide, he was offered five director-level jobs.

But recession was just around the corner, and by June 1991, instead of heading the export arm of a large German company, he found himself joining the unemployment statistics.

Two and a half years later and 43, a full-time job remains elusive: he now looks after two young children while his wife goes out to work. 'The further you have to fall, the harder it is. Our lifestyle has contracted to a quarter of our previous income and that means no holidays and a second-hand car. We had already sold our house, anticipating a move to Germany, otherwise there is no doubt we would have lost it,' he said.

Belonging to the Executive Association has helped: the ability to network has led to some consultancy work. And then there is the companionship.

Mr Gerald, who lost his job 18 months ago, now also heads an embryonic national association pressing the interests of jobless executives. So far, there are groups in Stevenage, Maidenhead and Northampton. The St Albans association could soon have a new influx of members from Mr Gerald's former company, International General Electric Services, which is leaving St Albans for the US and wiping out another 190 jobs in the city.

(Photograph omitted)