How the Craft Trailblazers are forging ahead

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What this new apprenticeship initiative means for the industry.

Some of the industry’s most forward-thinking companies have added the title of Craft Trailblazer to their monikers in a bid to change the face of British apprenticeships. Sarah Louise Jordan uncovers what the Craft Trailblazers initiative means for apprentice providers, educators, employers and young people.

Assembling a task force to tackle craft apprenticeships in the UK today isn’t exactly an easy job. But it seems the powers that be could no longer ignore the frustrated cries of employers confused by complicated terminology, underprepared young people and the lack of a dedicated qualification framework for their particular, niche area of specialism.

Cue the Craft Trailblazer initiative — a group of organisations, independent charities and employers, from The Goldsmiths’ Centre and the V&A Museum to Hockley Mint and Holts Academy, who have been chosen by the government to take steps towards building a blueprint of expected standards and skills that apprentices need (according to those that employ them) in order to excel in craft industries, including the jewellery industry.

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This isn’t to say that the current system for hiring apprentices in the jewellery industry isn’t working, but there are consistent faults that Craft Trailblazer chair, Jason Holt, also known for his role as a government ambassador for small business, noticed when writing the Holt Review 18 months ago.

Commissioned by the government to discover new ways to get small businesses to take on apprentices, he realised that employers are dissatisfied with unfocused apprenticeships in disciplines such as business administration and customer service that do not adequately prepare young people for the workplace.

The Craft Trailblazers will therefore try to develop a standardised framework (to be ratified by the necessary government channels), which can teach the basic, transferable skills needed by everyone, ascending to the specific skills needed by diamond mounters, designers and hallmarkers.

Holt admits: “We have to find a consensus between all the very diverse disciplines to discover what everyone has in common and what it is that everyone needs from apprentices. Things like good quality hand skills and positive approaches to work will apply whether you are a jeweller or a potter.”

“The problem is,” argues Holt, “with vocational qualifications, employers don’t really understand when a young person says ‘I am a level four apprentice’. But if they say ‘I have got a degree in X, Y and Z’ everyone understands what a degree means and what going to university means.”

And Holt isn’t the only trailblazing industry member who has seen the impact this lack of transparency is having on employers. Lee Lucas, the principle and director of specialist jewellery training centre Holts Academy argues: “In my experience, employers have a reluctance to embrace apprenticeships because it seems bureaucratic and complicated. The opportunity with the Craft Trailblazer is to demystify apprenticeships and make them easy for small businesses.”

But the issue of a lack of clarity pales in comparison to the fact that lots of apprenticeship schemes just don’t fit any of the government’s existing frameworks – meaning young people training in some disciplines won’t walk away with tangible and recognised qualifications.

The Goldsmiths’ Centre director Peter Taylor explains: “Apprentices in The Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office don’t fit any of the frameworks, so while they follow a program of training with us they can’t link back into formal apprenticeship qualifications. This is something we are trying to rectify with the Craft Trailblazers.”

He continues: “The structure of apprenticeships is quite challenging. Unfortunately for a long time we’ve had a one-size-fits-all approach, and it creates a missed opportunity for young people in the jewellery industry.”

As Taylor is quick to point out, the Craft Trailblazer initiative cannot take responsibility for the development of each individual sector’s apprenticeships standards. Holt, Lucas and Taylor are hopeful that a government-backed basic framework of essential standards will encourage employers to get involved with defining the specific skills required for their craft.

Taylor adds: “We are ready to set an apprenticeship standard for assay because it’s the work that we do. We know what an apprenticeship is and what the outcomes should be. Hopefully some of the things that we do today in terms of supporting the development of apprenticeships are things that can add value to the Craft Trailblazers.”

Lucas agrees, having helped to define standards for the jewellery industry at Holts Academy. He explains: “We have to decide on those jobs that are not being represented by a fit for purpose apprenticeship and how the Trailblazers can make sure this is put into place.”

And there is plenty of statistical evidence to suggest that paying attention to apprenticeships is the right thing for right now. In 2014, Holts Academy will assist approximately 150 young people, compared to about 80 in 2013 and 20 in 2012. Recent statistics quoted by Holt also suggest that there will be a 10% increase in the number of small businesses taking on apprentices in the next 12 months, a jump from 10% to 20% of businesses nationwide.

He admits: “There is a cultural shift happening. Businesses are growing and thinking optimistically. They are thinking about the type of staff they want to take on and who they can invest in. An apprentice is relatively low cost, but it gives an employer the chance to grow someone who is right for their business.”

Diamond and gemstone wholesaler, Steven May, of Hatton Garden business Maygems, is experiencing the benefits with his son who is doing a three year jewellery making diploma course through Holts Academy.

He admits to Professional Jeweller: “I still do things exactly how I was taught back in the day, so it is nice to have a fresh outlook from someone who is learning new techniques now. The trade is always evolving and having an apprentice freshens up my approach to business.”

Young jewellery designer and winner of the Goldsmiths Craft and Design Council competition, Abigail Buckingham, spent one year training in a cross-section of techniques on the pre-apprentice foundation course at The Goldsmiths’ Centre,. Now she is indentured on a four year diamond mounting apprenticeships with her silversmith father, A.R.Buckingham.

She reveals: “I believe that an apprenticeship was the best route for me to get into the trade. The pre-apprentice foundation course at the Goldsmiths’ Centre was a great place for me to learn the basic skills and it gave me the hands on approach of being at the bench every day.”

The Goldsmiths’ Centre might be a powerful force for building capable apprentices, but the Craft Trailblazer initiative is about more than just praising those who have already got it right. In the long term, the initiative has the potential to put the focus back on Britain’s craft industries. Goldsmiths’ Centre director, Taylor, admits: “Employers have been asked to take the lead with the government responding and I think that is really positive. It is hard to say if something magical will happen at the end of the process, but we are all willing to give it our best shot.”

In keeping with the rise in employers requesting enthusiastic apprentices, the Craft Trailblazer scheme wants to tap into those business owners who value their people above anything else. Holt points to WB The Creative Jewellery Group and Hockley Mint as prime examples of businesses who are growing and hiring apprentices.

Holt explains: “If we can create a framework so that every school in the land knows that apprenticeships are available to their students, then we’ve got a chance to feed the industries that are desperate for young talented people. We are investing in something that could be exciting for the next generation,” he adds.

It is not going to be easy, but when all of the chosen Craft Trailblazers gather around a table in the coming months they will have the knowledge, experience and specialist insight required to enact change – reducing what could easily be a 20 year project into potentially just 12 months of hard work.

This Hot Topic feature was taken from the April issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here,
 

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