Personnel: Schools for job-hunters flourish: Outplacement has dislodged recruitment as the prime business of executive agencies

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The Independent Online
IN THE days of Empire, a fortune hunter off to the colonies would have paid a few shillings for some letters of presentation. During the bust-boom-bust of the past decade, equipping today's job-hunter has evolved into a highly competitive industry worth pounds 60m to pounds 70m a year.

Stephen, 42, a former group financial director who was made redundant two years ago, is one of the 40,000 people expected to attend job review workshops sponsored by the Government this financial year. The two-day courses are targetted at middle management, the sector hardest hit by job cuts. Nearly half the places are in the South-east.

Ray Cross is a senior management adviser whose job review workshop at Putteridge Bury, Luton College of Further Education, has become a pilot model for the Employment Service. He said: 'We are looking at transferable skills and job growth areas.

'It is very difficult to place a missile expert in a civilian occupation. You have to disguise over-specialisation and over- qualification. With 80 per cent of our employers employing fewer than 50 people, the need for a specialist in a large organisation no longer applies. You are looking for generalists.'

His pupils, most of whom have been unemployed for more than six months, are usually in groups of 12. They are taught to market and sell themselves 'to meet and exceed the customer's requirements'. Job advertisements are analysed and interviewee skills are honed with the help of a video camera. Computers and stationery are provided. Full research facilities and psychological counselling are available.

To judge by the grateful letters to Putteridge Bury, the workshops - which are operating in more than 200 locations through tendered contracts worth pounds 3.8m in 1992-93 - are effective. Mr Cross says at least 30 per cent of his pupils return to high-profile jobs and that the average 'conversion rate' from application to interview is more than half.

Whereas the Government's workshops cater for private individuals, the main 'outplacement' agencies operating job clubs for executives and middle managers, as well as blue-collar workers, are contracted mostly by companies as part of redundancy packages.

Services range from open- ended personal counselling with a customised office, computer and secretarial staff costing up to pounds 10,000, to 12 hours of counselling over several weeks and including basic office facilities at about pounds 1,500.

Bill Pitcher, the Institute of Personnel Management's industry spokesman for outplacement matters and the managing director of Cedar International, said: 'Fewer employees are using recruitment agencies because good-quality people are applying direct for fewer posts. Targeting is better.'

Since 1990, Mr Pitcher's company has seen recruitment drop to a tenth of its business, with outplacement climbing to nearly three-quarters. According to Unisys, a leading United States computer manufacturer which has cut its UK workforce by 15 per cent over the same period and sponsored outplacement for those affected, it is conspicuously the shortage of vacancies that has triggered the metamorphosis.

'We must get 10 calls a week from outplacement agencies offering their services,' said Chris Cherkas, human resources director of Unisys.

'Outplacement is becoming the norm in company management,' said Derek Edwards, the managing director of Sanders and Sidney, an outplacement agency. 'It used to be reserved for managers, mainly in the financial sector, but it has now spread up and down the scale and expanded into the public sector and manufacturing industry.'

Technological change and the reduction of management layers, accompanied by mergers and the recession itself, are believed by outplacement agencies to have introduced a flexibility to the job market that will continue to increase demand for their services.

Despite low margins, which mean that only the high-volume leaders and local businesses - with a greater proportion of private clients - are likely to prosper in the short term, Pauline Hyde Associates anticipates that the outplacement market will turn over pounds 100m a year by the end of the century.

Christopher Blasdale, the company's chief executive, said: 'People think we are about recession, depression and bad news, but the fact is we have expanded most in times of boom. Although we are on budget this year, some companies will flounder - but for performance-related rather than market-related reasons.'

(Photograph omitted)

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