Pitting wits against coal closures: David Bowen describes how a job-seeking agency for miners is preparing for battle

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The Independent Online
AS MINERS wait to hear their fate, one part of British Coal at least is working flat out.

British Coal Enterprise is the subsidiary that picks up the bits when mines close. It was working towards a big redundancy announcement this autumn, and for a week thought its time had come. Now it has to keep itself on a war footing without knowing when or if the war will come.

In the past year BCE increased the number of 'outplacement counsellors' - people who advise miners how they can find new jobs - from 50 to 250.

During September and in the first half of October their training was sharply intensified. And in the week after the initial pit closure announcements 26,000 flyers were printed. 'For the best advice when leaving British Coal, you can't beat BCE and the job shop service,' they said.

Last week's volte-face added confusion, but BCE's task is still formidable. 'It's more of a siege than a pitched battle now,' Phil Andrew, the chief executive, said.

If the first 10 pits are closed, about 10,000 miners will flood on to the job market, and it is BCE's business to find them work. If the additional 20,000 job losses are confirmed, Mr Andrew will have the distinction of being responsible for more miners than Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal.

Mr Andrew, a straightforward Lancastrian who spent 25 years in British Coal before switching to Enterprise last year 'because I was battle-weary', makes no bones about the scale of the job.

'I feel the the responsibility very heavily,' he said. 'I know we're not going to get all those people jobs in the short term. I was told a story of a clerk who got a job in four days, but equally there are people who have been on our lists for 12 months.'

BCE was founded in 1984 and was modelled on the successful British Steel (Industry). Its primary role has always been to attract investment into coal closure areas. It gives soft loans, helps with industrial premises and for the past 18 months has also had a venture capital arm.

It measures itself by jobs created and by the efficiency with which it creates them. The pounds 70m it spent on loans helped to create 39,000 jobs in 3,300 firms up to the end of March at pounds 1,430 per job.

It has also put pounds 17.4m into work space and pounds 1.6m into venture capital. BCE has not created the sort of spectacular revivals that BSI achieved in towns such as Corby and Consett, but it has - on the smaller scale of the pit villages - achieved modest success.

But this side of the business has had to take a back seat this year. For one thing, it is increasingly difficult to persuade potential managers to take loans, even at a soft rate. Of the pounds 60m BCE has available for loans, only pounds 40m has been used.

This got Mr Andrew into trouble with a Commons select committee last year, but he says: 'We have standards - we will only invest in projects we believe will be successful.' As a result his bad claims record is similar to that of the banks, even though the loans are rarely secured.

In the past few months the collapse in business confidence has led to a reduction in the number prepared to proceed with projects.

'Twelve months ago we had 90 per cent going ahead,' he said. 'In the past two months 50 per cent of the loan offers we have made have not been taken up.'

These schemes have never been effective at providing jobs for miners, though. Only about 10 per cent of the jobs created have gone to miners and few of the companies set up with BCE's backing are run by them.

So this year BCE has been concentrating on the activity it took over from British Coal proper in 1987 - being 'the biggest outplacement agency for blue-collar workers in the country'. In the past five years it has helped find 26,000 redundant miners new jobs, a success rate of 86 per cent, though few of them have avoided a pay cut. Sixty per cent of the successes go into manufacturing.

In the next year it is likely to have to deal with the same number again. Mr Andrew said he had no inside information, but was working on the assumption that large-scale closures would be announced this autumn, hence the build-up over the past year.

If miners are looking for comfort at the moment they can at least be reassured that BCE's job- finding service shames the standard state-run system.

As soon as a closure is announced BCE moves into collieries with a 'job shop' staffed by counsellors and linked to the central computer system. As angels of death BCE staff have to be discreet, especially in the current uncertain climate. At the 10 pits in imminent danger the equipment is in place but the staff are not.

In addition, BCE has three permanent job shops and seven new career centres for clerical and management staff.

The Central Job Shop in Mansfield, Notts, looks like much like any other job centre - a handful of men staring at vacancy cards, others sitting around chatting.

Three men have come in for the first time. They used to work at the Sherwood pit, which has already shut, and were spurred to look for help by the belief that Michael Heseltine's closures will go ahead.

'We've got to get going while there's a lull before the rush,' one said. They confessed that, having known nothing but life in the pits, they are daunted: 'It's very frightening really. When you've been used to what we're used to, you don't know what to do.'

The Job Shop manager, Karin Hubble, said this was a common attitude and one that BCE aims to counter. 'The most difficult thing is for them to know how to start.'

So far 70 per cent of redundant miners have used job shops. After a brief interview with a counsellor they are given a 'job seekers' pack' containing a video, tapes on interview and application techniques and a handbook with exercises on the skills they will need.

'They find CVs most difficult,' Ms Hubble said. 'One said he had no skills, but then we discovered that he had been a parent governor, which meant he did have management experience.'

Many find it difficult to highlight their former skills. Ms Hubble described a conversation between a counsellor and a client:

'How long were you down the pit?' - 'Since the first day I joined.'

'What did you do there?' - 'I mended things.'

'What?' - 'Owt that were broke.'

It took a while before his marketable skills, such as having a health and safety qualification, came to light.

The job shop's job identification system is impressive. It starts with a daily search of all national and relevant regional papers, transferring all jobs advertised to the vacancies board next day.

Then there is a telephone sales team of six people who ring companies to see if any unadvertised jobs are available. Since the summer, when the Midlands team was set up, it has built up a database of 4,500 companies.

There are also six 'roadrunners', consultants who go to meetings and knock on companies' doors selling the merits of the ex-miner. 'We've found 13,000 jobs that otherwise wouldn't have been identified,' Mr Andrew said.

Despite the recession jobs are being found, though at a slower rate than before. One morning last week BCE managed to find 22 unadvertised jobs with one company and pounced with a supply of miners before the general market discovered them.

However weak the economy is, some skills are always in short supply. Next to the job shop a former hosiery factory has just been transformed into a skills training centre. It is training miners for jobs for which, it has been told, there will be long-term demand - security guards, bricklayers, welders, electricians, carpenters.

There are no more than two dozen people in it now, building walls, welding metal. According to its manager, Tom Concannon, it is ready for many more. 'When will it fill? We don't know. We just watch the papers.'

(Photograph omitted)