Robots suffer from joblessness, too . . . but in Britain, ingenuity is creating new jobs

Recession and unemployment can be fought, and victories won.

Bill Humphrey does it from a tiny office with a threadbare carpet in Lancashire, and he has triggered off a chain of new ideas now reaching into 100 other communities in Britain.

''Two years ago,'' he said recently, leaning back in his chair, ''a young man walked in here. He had no business experience, and no money. All he had was a Cambridge education, two years marketing with IBM, and an idea.

''He had a 'breadboard' -- you know, microcomputer circuitry on boards -- which he had designed. I had no idea how good it was. But we soon found out.''

Mr. Humphrey is director of something new -- an informal new group linking industry, banks, and local government, called the Community of St. Helens Trust. His aim is to create viable employment and encourage small business.

He picked up the phone and contacted the ultra-sophisticated computer division at the giant Pilkington Glass Corporation nearby. The division quickly agreed to look the man over.

Within two weeks the report came back: ''The young man is outstanding, and his circuitry is three years ahead of anyone else.''

Behind the scenes, Humphrey arranged two things. First, Pilkington itself advanced (STR)10,000 ($17,000) to the man, Peter Plinston, to buy a range of computer software for him to experiment upon. Second, a bank loan came through for (STR)2,000 ($3,400) for living expenses.

A plan drawn up with trust advice to set up a computer manufacturing business was so good that it attracted (STR)265,000 ($450,000) from the Anglo-American Venture Fund, a joint operation between the British Technology Group and a United States venture capital organizer, Jack Melchor.

Today, Positron Computers, Ltd., is not only making 30 complete computer systems per month, but also a year and a half after start-up, it is making a profit. Located in Newton-le-Willows, near St. Helens, it employs 11 people directly, subcontracts to 25 more, and is growing.

''The St. Helens Trust is an excellent organization,'' Mr. Plinston said in an interview. ''Bill (Humphrey) arranged that (STR)10,000 loan from Pilkington, which really started us off.

''We decided to set up in St. Helens as a result, and now the trust is helping us find a new building built specially for us.''

Back in his office, Bill Humphrey smiled. ''That young man,'' he said, ''will be a multimillionaire in 10 years.''

All over St. Helens, 154 other small businesses have started up with trust advice. They range from steel processors to plastics manufacturers, from commercial printers to makers of contact lens, fire extinguishers, metal fasteners, and clothes.

So far, between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs have been created -- not enough to reverse the tidal wave of unemployment inundating the north of England (17 percent in St. Helens alone), but reducing its impact and giving hope of future growth.

''What we're doing here is changing the way people think,'' Mr. Humphrey went on.

''The idea is that the community works together to create jobs. The local council keeps rates down to keep businesses here. Pilkington sees the benefit to everyone is helping, including itself.

''We saw the writing on the wall back in 1978. Pilkington, the giant of St. Helens, was automating to keep its world leadership in glass.

''We decided not to wait for government help, but to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.''

The trust helps with advice, finding finance, arranging premises, and training.

Mr. Humphrey himself was formerly a free-lance company consultant. He has a small office provided by Pilkington, two consultants provided from local banks, his own expertise, and the conviction shared by Pilkington, the local town council, and many others, that he knows what he is doing.

He cherishes his local independence (the trust receives expenses from government urban grant funds in London), his lack of trappings, and his informality.

His example has been noted all over the country -- and Queen Elizabeth II has just awarded him an OBE (Order of the British Empire).

So far, 50 other community trusts have been set up in Britain, and 50 more are being formed.

About 1,300 individuals have come to the St. Helens trust since 1978, 155 new businesses have been begun, about 111 more have expanded, and 68 may yet start up. Seven have failed.

''It will be five to 10 years yet before unemployment will be under control, '' Mr. Humphrey says. ''Our hope is that businesses started now will expand as conditions improve.''

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