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Ad hoc surgery for the jobless

A former psychiatric hospital is now an advice clinic to help redundant Rover workers. James Sturcke reports

A blue MG Rover with the word "streetwise" moulded into its plastic trimming is parked outside the Hollymore Centre on the southern outskirts of Birmingham.

The former psychiatric hospital, just a mile from the Longbridge plant, buzzes with activity. Within five days of the announcement that the car firm - once the world's third-biggest - had collapsed, the Hollymore site opened as an outreach centre to offer skills advice.

Staff from 16 colleges across the West Midlands began helping the 5,000 redundant workers. The centre is open 11 hours a day, seven days a week. In the first week, tutors saw 1,500 of the workers referred by Jobcentre Plus.

Andrew Myers, 38, said: "I came here with an open mind expecting it to take a couple of minutes. Instead, I was in there for an hour. They asked what I did outside work, so I told them about coaching the kids'

football team and helping a young offender to sort things out. I'd never thought of putting that on my CV.

"They said it was a skill. Now I'm going away to think about community work."

According to Gerry McDonald, vice-principal of Sutton Coldfield college and co-ordinator of the centre's operation, Mr Myers' experience is fairly typical.

"Many come in saying they want to work in construction," he said. "But we have staff who can open their eyes to other options available and match skills to shortage areas.

"The Learning and Skills Council has secured a pound;10 million European Social Funding grant for training. There is a question about capacity. Is there space to put on classes or enough tutors? Are there enough assessors? It may be a question of doing taster courses until the main induction in September."

For Mr Myers it is a question of money. He has three children and a Pounds 60,000 mortgage, and it is only a small relief that his wife didn't book a holiday in America in the weeks of uncertainty that led up to the car-maker's demise.

"I have to see what help I can get for longer-term training," he said. "If I can't get support, I'll have to take whatever work I can get."

Shaukat Walele, 43, was a product developer at Longbridge, working on the Rover 75 facelift and a 2002 update to the sporty MG model. "I came to find out about teaching," he said. "I'm interested in teaching maths, ICT and business management. I've got to think about how to go on from here and whether to take a PGCE course. That could be problematic without financial help."

Birmingham and Solihull LSC is aware of the need for rapid re-training so that workers can maintain a steady income.

"We are really conscious of that," said Julie Roberts, senior LSC manager.

"We also know a lot of people want short, sharp training to get back into work.

"But you can't become a plumber in a week. The training we want to offer is a range of short courses - possibly to brush up skills - and some longer ones."

She says the decision by Jobcentre Plus to let learners train for more than 16 hours a week without losing benefit is a major help. But the West Midlands, like the rest of the country, needs more people with advanced skills.

Peter Tudor, vice-principal of Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, said:

"There is a need in manufacturing for people not just with level 2 but level 3 skills."

A report by the Work Foundation, published after Rover's collapse, warned that the pound;150m support package announced by the Government was not enough.

"Local employers are only offering jobs for the most highly-skilled workers," said author Nick Isles. "Lessons from elsewhere tell us re-training has to be specific - both technical and vocational - as there are very few economic returns to other, less advanced forms of work-based training."

David Cragg, chief executive of Birmingham and Solihull LSC, says paying training allowances or wages to former Rover workers in re-training is "impossible". "Paying a wage would set a precedent and others in long-term training would ask why they are not paid," he said.

Instead, the Rover task-force has focused on cutting barriers to those willing to travel further.

"There is a future in manufacturing in the West Midlands and we want to keep Rover workers," said Mr Cragg. "We have world-class car manufacturers such as Toyota in Derby, so we have announced a travel subsidy of pound;75 a week for up to 20 weeks so that workers can travel further. There is also a scheme in which an employer who takes on a Rover person can get re-training costs for that person and another member of the workforce. I think that might cost around pound;2m. I think most of the Longbridge workers will have jobs in 12 months."

Norman Cave, principal of Bournville college, says the colleges' response is an example to others. The Rover crisis comes as Sir Andrew Foster, former comptroller of the Audit Commission, is conducting an investigation into the way colleges work.

Mr Cave said: "For many workers, it is the first time they have explored their potential. The FE sector has been the only one to act quickly in the crisis. I hope Sir Andrew can make a note of that."

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