Creating opportunities for coal-miners should assure BCE long-term employment.
No one will be watching the deliberations of the cross-party Trade and Industry Select Committee proceed with its review of the pit closures with greater interest than British Coal Enterprise (BCE), whose headquarters is in pit-scented Edwinstowe. It was set up in 1984 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of British Coal "to help create alternative job opportunities in areas associated with coal-mining".
It had to gain expertise quickly. The mining workforce was already shrinking and the miners' strike of 1985 accelerated the process. By the time of British Coal's announcement last month that another 30 pits were to close, the workforce had shrunk from 130,000 to 41,000.
BCE has been on a steep learning curve from the beginning. By 1989 it felt confident enough to be able to market itself and offer its outplacement service to private corporate clients. Its current client list ranges from the Ministry of Defence to engineering and computer companies.
Since it began, BCE has spent £74 million on some 3,600 investment projects supporting 81,000 new jobs and it claims an 86% success rate in resettling clients either in jobs, self-employment or training. Its reputation has spread abroad and, in the last two years, it has been offering outplacement services to the mining industries in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where the chill wind from changing markets is blowing hard. Polish personnel managers, too, with an eye on the perils of a market economy, have been coming to Britain to train and observe BCE's schemes in action.
BCE prides itself on its speedy reaction. Steve Clemerson, its national outplacement manager, explains that collieries close in different ways - some shut down because of exhausted seams, a predictable circumstance. Closure, in this instance, can be estimated to the nearest week as production winds down over a year. But it can also happen suddenly. Sometimes, says Clemerson, BCE has been asked to provide "job shop" plus career services on the site of a pit with only three days' notice, for anything from 50 to 1,000 miners. Often it has been running 20-30 operations simultaneously.
Obviously the closure of 31 pits with the loss, at a stroke, of 30,000 jobs would have provided BCE with a sad but unique opportunity to demonstrate its prowess in the worst possible conditions. The stay of execution means that its workload when the inquiry is complete is uncertain but BCE is quietly confident without being in the least complacent.
For the current year alone its outplacement effort has seen 55% of its customers into employment, 36% into re-training (compared with 22% the previous year), and 9% into self-employment. Clemerson explains that the rise in those re-training is a reflection of the difficult job market. Obviously, in a depressed market, employment opportunities are few and soon satisfied so that the need for re-training inevitably grows.
The percentage of those setting up on their own has remained stable. BCE is aware of the dangers of ambition exceeding performance here. It runs self-employment "awareness" days designed to confront those, enthused by the thought of being entrepreneurs, with the realities, and to point out any unsuitable traits of temperament or skill deficiencies in the hope of dissuading those with either from proceeding. "We try to screen away those who have not thought it through," says Clemerson.
BCE has a revolving loan fund of £60 million for investment. It runs a "soft loan" scheme for start-ups - project funding at low interest rates. Such start-ups may receive £5,000 for each job created. BCE will provide up to a maximum of 25% of total project funding. Eighty-six client loans were repaid in Scotland alone in 1991-92, so funds are re-cycled for more job-creation.
The company benefits from a large property portfolio, much of which consists of buildings, on disused pit sites, converted into small business units. It uses self-employed consultants as required, giving one-to-one counselling at the job shops which are usually set up on the affected sites.
"We are resourced and geared up to whatever British Coal throws at us," says Clemerson doughtily, quite aware that the depth of the present recession make his job harder. "We have a scheme that is flexible and which can be turned up or down as required. What we don't have any control over is how many jobs there are out there."
BCE's own staff numbers 70. The ultimate irony is that it, too, could one day be out of a job. "Our workload is finite," Clemerson observes calmly, aware no doubt that, whatever the findings of the inquiry, the workload will remain formidable for the foreseeable future - and there are always those Czechs, Hungarians and Poles.