NEWS FOCUS: Apprenticeships
Jason Holt has been championing the benefits of apprenticeships. Kate Donovan reports on why the challenges are worth overcoming
The results of Jason Holt’s government review on what can be done to make apprenticeships more accessible to SMEs were due to be published this July. The review, by the chief executive of the Holts Group of Companies, was carried out as part of a commitment made in the Education and Skills Growth Review in November 2011. Its aims are to address what deters businesses, such as jewellery retailers, from running apprenticeship schemes and to look at what can be done to make it easier for SMEs to take on apprentices.
Holt, who runs a jewellery business in Hatton Garden and Holts Academy of Jewellery - a not-for-profit training organisation - explains that one of the greatest barriers to apprenticeship schemes are misconceptions about what they mean in today’s industry. “An apprentice is someone who is employed, earning and learning and working to a certain standard and working towards qualifications, which have a validity and are recognised in the workplace,” he explains.
Apprenticeships are designed by Sector Skills Councils and business representatives from different industries to ensure the programmes are relevant for employers.
For the jewellery industry specifically, Holt understands that there are further disenchantments with the concept. “[Jewellery] SMEs may often see as a barrier that an apprentice will be of little use to them in the early days as it as a highly specialised trade and a certain degree of knowledge/skill is needed before they can contribute anything to the business,” he says.
However, benefits such as being able to tap into raw talent drives individuals such as Holt to help retailers overcome their concerns.
For instance, at Holts Academy, before the more conventional one-day-a-week format kicks in, there is a six-week training block at the start of the apprenticeship so that young people join the business with a basic level of knowledge. Additionally, Holts Academy is extending its focus beyond jewellery manufacturing training, launching a Jewellery Retail Diploma, this autumn to help combat skills gaps specific to jewellery retail.
Employers are not on their own when it comes to making schemes work. Chancellor George Osborne promised in last year’s budget to create an extra 250,000 apprenticeship places during the current parliament and is trying to make the process easier by reducing the red tape.
Additionally, a current government incentive scheme pays SMEs up to £1,500 for taking on apprentices for the first time in the last three years. “In the past, smaller firms may have been deterred from hiring an apprentice due to perceived logistical, training and administrative costs but the new incentive is encouraging greater involvement,” says Teresa Logan, head of the National Apprentice Service (NAS) small business team.
The Forum of Private Business has also been working with the government to reduce barriers to work experience and apprenticeships. Phil McCabe, senior policy adviser, recommends that businesses seek information on the NAS website. He adds: “Apprentices are often seen as a cost-effective way of recruiting new staff, enabling businesses to address skills shortages, improve productivity and benefit from the drive and enthusiasm that usually comes with employing young people.”
While there are resources to help retailers implement schemes, it is up to them to decide whether the role they have in mind is suitable for an apprenticeship and if they can provide necessary support and resource.
Among his suggestions to help the process, Holt advises that the employer should produce a job description and sit down regularly with the apprentice to monitor their progress.
For John Ball, director at Brown & Newirth, which has recently taken on two apprentices, having a specific job role in mind when taking on an apprentice is unnecessary. “I truly believe that apprenticeships can only work if they are used to enhance the medium- to long-term skill base within your organisation rather than a less expensive option to fill a specific position,” he says. “Our philosophy is to work each department on a rotational basis in order for the apprentice to learn and develop their individual skills, ultimately realising their strengths within a favoured department ensuring that we marry the best people to the suited roles within the organisation.”
Apprenticeships can help the industry as a whole. Michael Jones Jeweller has run apprenticeship schemes in the past and would like to do so again. “The great thing about an apprenticeship in the jewellery trade is that the candidate will be taught a trade for life,” says William Craghill, managing director. “Be it a goldsmith, watchmaker or retail jeweller, they can take their skills anywhere in the world.
“There is a shortage of watchmakers and goldsmiths in the UK at the moment - apprenticeship schemes within the trade can only be a positive thing, for retailers and the industry as a whole.”
John Lunn, managing director of retailer Lunn’s, agrees that the skills that can be developed via apprenticeships are essential for the trade. He says retail jewellers can find it hard to find skilled watchmakers. Consequently, the retailer has taken on a watch apprentice and is - with the support of The Houlden Group - putting him through training at the British School of Watchmaking.
“He will come back to us in August where he will complete his training,” says Lunn.
Although designer Laura Gravestock carried out an internship rather than an apprenticeship, she is a supporter of the importance of skills and knowledge sharing within the industry, especially for those who are up-and-coming. “Ultimately, whether you become an intern or an apprentice it all boils down to hard work and a desire to learn - I knew I needed to take every opportunity available to me because I was serious about becoming a jewellery designer,” she says. “With the current climate, there will be an abundance of people looking to gain experience in the industry - it’s so important to be keen, hardworking and willing to learn and listen.”
Although internships are hugely beneficial, designers and craftsman often find it hard to carry them out because of the lack of monetary incentive. “As most of the internships are no-paid work experience, it’s rather difficult, especially in cities like London, where living can be quite expensive,” says designer Jayce Wong. She too believes that working with other established people in the trade is a huge advantage and got a great deal from her internship with designer Babette Wasserman. “Personally it was a great experience as I had no idea on how to run a business right after I graduated,” she explains.
Internships are also very different from apprenticeship schemes and do not necessarily offer the same mutual support or the longevity.
Both founders of jewellery retailer Johnny Rocket served apprenticeships and are advocates of the schemes. “It’s a testament to the quality of traditional long-term apprenticeships that some of the best British designer/makers served under the same system,” says creative director Johnny Rocket.
However, Rocket thinks the arrangement has to be long-term to work, and believes in a four-year system. He backs Holt’s efforts to reinstate full apprenticeship schemes.
“This country is losing its skill base every year. India and China are investing in training and we need to fight the skill loss by a strident investment in quality skills, not some short-term fix,” adds Rocket.
Innovation and quality craftsmanship have been passed down through generations by pioneers that have given the watch and jewellery industries the prestige they have today. Continuing the tradition of skills sharing is essential for ongoing success, so don’t miss the opportunity to tap into raw talent and mould an employee to your requirements.