U-xplore adapts to new era with virtual jobs tours for the young

THE Yorkshire educational software firm set up by the former star of Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers has moved into offering virtual tours of major employers after its core business was hit by public spending cuts.

Now u-xplore, run by Andy Pickles, is on course to grow turnover this year and has also been boosted by the 2m sale of a 15 per cent stake in the business and the appointment of a new chairman.

Mr Pickles said the new service, which connects labour market information to job opportunities, would be a focal point for employers. He has already worked with Manchester Airport, Saltaire-based set-top box maker Pace and the Royal Air Force and said they were now in talks with Doncaster, Leeds, York and North Yorkshire local authorities about adopting the tool.

U-xplore, which is based in Rotherham, is an online resource which informs young people about the workplace. Whether teenagers want to become chefs, engineers or lawyers, the programme allows them to see and hear how people in those careers got there and what the job involves.

Before the economic crisis it was signed up by The Royal Society of Chemistry, Rotherham and Doncaster's borough councils, Sheffield and Hull's city councils as well as by local authorities in Sunderland and Ayrshire, but the spending restrictions have driven the firm to develop new products.

The new service is described as a "universal careers service online connected to local employers". It has been taken up in Sheffield, for example, where several schools have access to a portal containing information about local job prospects.

Mr Pickles, chief executive, said the changes to u-xplore came as a response to the shrinking of the public sector.

"I spotted the cuts coming quite early on so I re-approached our local authority clients with a sustainable model which helped them make money to help us make money. 2010 has enabled us to look at 2011 very positively.

"We've realised that what we've got now needs to be more broad. So we've broken it down into smaller pieces, we've put into a different framework and we've approached it with a portal mechanism but you have got to go out there and appreciate how you can help a local authority make money or save money.

"Gone are the days of e-learning credits when the Labour government was in. There seemed to be a lot of money to do things in the educational space (but) that's gone.

"You either wither and die on the vine, as it were, or you get real to it and re-approach the market with a different proposition and that's what we've done."

The firm now has 30 staff and is working with 36 local authorities. Mr Pickles said it is on course to turn over between 1.2m and 1.4m for the year to April, up from 1.1m the previous year, and is hoping for a strong final quarter. He believes they can grow the business long-term by bringing schools, local authorities and employers closer together.

"Because we have been forced to think differently, we have now seen a market opportunity that takes us into the recruitment space and we see our approach enabling u-xplore to have an opportunity ten times bigger than it was before the austerity (measures). It has been challenging but where there is challenge there is opportunity."

Mr Pickles, a father-of-three, also wants to take u-xplore to India and has begun looking into the possibilities there as well as closer to home on the Isle of Man and Jersey.

U-xplore is an offshoot from the Music Factory Entertainment Group, which in 1983 was developed from the Music Factory studio which went on to spawn Jive Bunny, an animated dancing rabbit. Mr Pickles became deputy chairman of the group, with his father as chair. In 2004, u-xplore was set up and four years later it broke free of its parent firm with the backing of a new investor.

Last year, the firm appointed Jerry Jarvis as chairman. Mr Jarvis was managing director of Edexcel between 2005 and 2009 after joining the exam awarding body as operations director in 2000.

Mr Jarvis said: "U-xplore is bringing a context to learning and is therefore providing a purpose to it. It introduces a young person to the importance and relevance that learning really has."

A tidy job in the music industry

Andy Pickles is still active in the music industry more than two decades after he starred in Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers.

Today, the 41-year-old is one half of The Tidy Boys, a hard house act which has played at top clubs in London, Ibiza, Hong Kong and the US.

His partner is Amadeus Celery Mozart, who changed his name from Lee Marlow in the 1980s. Mr Mozart is creative director of u-xplore.

Fitting the Tidy Boys' commitments around u-xplore places big demands on Mr Pickles, who recently played a set from 12am to 2am in Prestatyn before driving back to Rotherham to make a presentation to the town's council that morning.