Hundreds of people who have never worked in their lives are finding employment and self-respect thanks to a unique experiment in one of Birmingham's poorest wards. Chief reporter Paul Dale investigates.

A former Victorian swimming baths is an unlikely setting for a highly successful inner city job creation project.

But a little more than ten months since undergoing a £4.5 million refit, the building where the city's working people once took their weekly exercise has become a hub of activity dedicated to defeating ingrained unemployment in one of the country's poorest wards.

The Nechells Advancement Centre, as the baths are now known, is one of ten centres in Birmingham run by employment firm Pertemps on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions.

The private sector-led initiative, covering Nechells, Newtown, Washwood Heath, Saltley, Shard End and Stechford, has already delivered impressive results, helping some 20,000 people into work since 2000.

Worklessness in these areas - the new Government measure defining both unemployed people and those claiming benefit - ranges typically between 30 and 60 per cent.

Previous Government and council-led initiatives to match residents with jobs have had patchy results.

Over the six-year period, Pertemps has consistently beaten the job creation targets laid down by the DWP and has registered an 80 to 90 per cent retention rate among those it has helped into work.

Since moving to the Nechells baths in December last year, Pertemps experts have assisted almost 300 people. Some 200 are now in work, in a wide range of jobs ranging from accountancy to shelf-stacking.

More than 200 "community learners" have used the facilities on offer to acquire academic and vocational qualifications.

Not bad for a building once shuttered and decaying, whose future was in doubt until the Birmingham Foundation charity paid the city council £1 for the right to restore it.

On the day the Nechells Advancement Centre opened to the public more than 500 people came through the doors to see what was on offer.

Maggie Jones, the centre's manager, was astounded at the interest shown.

"Some of these people have never worked before and I couldn't get my head around that at first. But it happens.

"People around here could never have imagined that a place like this would exist. When they come here they say it can't be true."

The centre has contracts to find work for three categories of client - 18 to 24, 25+ and lone parents.

The lone parents category is particularly challenging, given that 70 per cent of girls in Nechells leave school and have a baby.

"They would love to get out to work but they don't understand what sort of child care would be available for them. We support them with interview skills and clothing.," Ms Jones added.

The aim, according to Ms Jones, is to remove the barriers to employment. That is, to eliminate one by one all the reasons why people might not be able to find work.

"If they need an interview suit, we get them one. They might need special tools, they might need a bus pass, they might need debt training. They might need to learn to drive, or their telephone technique may need to be improved. We do all of that. When our clients go to interview they have their suits and they look the part, they feel the part. They don't feel disadvantaged in any way. It is a tremendous boost to self esteem," she explained.

In many ways the most difficult task is to convince clients that they really would be better off, financially and spiritually, by finding work. A large proportion of those visiting the Nechells centre are worried that they will be worse off by taking a low-paid job and losing welfare benefits.

Ms Jones said: "If they are going to work they have to be relatively better off. We set up all the benefits and speak to the jobcentre on their behalf.

"It is quite shocking when you sit down and listen to these people who think they will never work in their lives. Some of them either didn't go to school or they were expelled. They just gave up.

"Many of them have no basic numeracy or literacy skills. A lot of them work on the black market on the side.

"When you see them come through the door they look deprived and distressed. You see a hard life in them. You can see they think they have no future.

"But by the time you work with them you see a fantastic change. Their faces brighten up. You start to build up a picture of what has happened to this person, in some instances the whole family has been here.

"These are fourth generation unemployed."