Jobs lifeline for Corus workers

Steel workers set to lose their jobs under a huge cutback were today given fresh hope of finding new work in the telecoms industry.

EXi Telcoms said it will target workers at steel firm Corus as part of a drive to recruit 4,000 workers across the UK over the next two years.

But the company made it clear that other workers would also be attracted by the offer of a job building new masts and other infrastructure for the telecoms industry, including the new generation of mobile phones.

Special job shops will be set up at Corus factories to help train steel workers facing redundancy.

The initiative was drawn up with the aid of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union which will provide buildings for retraining to take place.

General Secretary Sir Ken Jackson said it was important to start working towards finding new jobs for steel workers although he made it clear that Corus was not being "let off the hook".

Sir Ken and other union officials will meet Corus later today in London for a last ditch attempt to head off 6,000 planned redundancies.

Sir Ken told a London news conference announcing the new jobs: "This is a genuinely radical way of dealing with the threat of redundancy. We can offer our members in Corus and elsewhere the chance of retraining and a real job with real skills.

"These are real jobs for people who face an otherwise uncertain future. But we will maximise pressure on Corus to reverse its decision although we realise that we will not save every job in Corus."

Martin Kirke, general manager of EXi, said there will be a two to three month training period before people can start work for the company.

A pilot scheme was being introduced targeting Corus workers and Mr Kirke said he expected "significant numbers" of ex-steel workers would be recruited because many of them had the type of skills the company would be looking for.

Workers would not have to relocate their homes but they would be expected to travel across the country installing telecoms equipment.

Their pay rates will be comparable to those in the steel industry, said Mr Kirke.

"There is potential for the lions share to go to Corus workers although we want to extend recruitment to other manufacturing workers facing redundancy."

The announcement was welcomed by the Government which has not given any money to EXi but has hinted that help could be offered for retraining.

Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers said workers leaving certain sectors of the economy could make ideal candidates for new jobs such as those being created by EXi.

"Demand across the whole telecoms sector in the UK is likely to grow dramatically over the next couple of years and we must ensure that it can be satisfied.

"If the UK is to reap the benefits of new networks, we need plenty of skilled technician workers of this kind."

Employment Minister Tessa Jowell said: "This initiative is successfully tying together skills needs with training for workers facing redundancy."

Mr Kirke said he would be in negotiations over the next three months with telecoms equipment suppliers before finalising the recruitment drive.

The EXi move was attacked as undermining efforts to save jobs.

Eddie Long, a Transport and General Workers' Union member at the closure-threatened Ebbw Vale plant in south Wales, said the news could not have come at a worse time.

"In our view this has pre-empted the whole issue and undermined everything other unions are doing to save jobs," he said.

"The moratorium on Corus' planned job cuts runs out today and there have been strenuous behind-the-scenes efforts to come up with a viable alternative.

"For the AEEU to suddenly announce that they have been looking for alternatives employment for steel workers sends out all the wrong signals.

"It says they have accepted the cuts will take place even though the fight to save them is still going on. They should never have made this announcement today."