People power: Jewellery staff training

Apprentices at Holts Academy. The Craft Trailblazer scheme hopes to create apprentices that are a best fit for the industry's needs.

Find out the latest options and schools ready to upgrade your staff.

Well trained staff are an essential tool when every sale has to be fought for that much harder. While it might be tempting to cut training budgets in tough times, knowledge is more powerful than ever and as a result more organisations are launching or deepening training courses, as Rachael Taylor discovers.

When times are tough, businesses naturally look to cut corners, and that’s when apparent luxuries like staff training can come under scrutiny. But likewise when times are tough, retailers have to fight harder for each sale, and how can they possibly do that with a workforce that is not at the top of its game?

Jewellery retailers need less convincing than many other businesses because of the expert knowledge required to sell jewellery; diamond expertise, a familiarity with hallmarking and precious metals, gemstone knowledge, brand awareness, the ability to answer questions on ethical manufacturing processes, to name just a few. And like all retailers, staff need to know how to sell.

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If anything, there is a greater need for training in tough trading times, an issue that has been answered by a boom in organisations, courses and initiatives offering specialist training for the jewellery industry.

Holts Academy in London’s Hatton Garden was set up in 1999 as a not-for-profit agency offering training for the jewellery industry. While not a new player on the scene, it has been ramping up its offer of late, and last month launched four new courses aimed as jewellery makers. The courses cover various levels from a basic introduction to making jewellery to a more advanced version of the same course aimed at those wishing to take their skills further. There is also a new course dedicated to CAD design and one just for apprentices.

HOLTS ACADEMY FOR RETAIL
The academy is best known for training jewellery designers and makers, but next month it make a move into the retail side of the jewellery industry. Holts Academy has been in consultation with experts in the trade to develop courses that will reflect the true demands of modern jewellery retailing and it’s soon-to-launch Retail Jewellery and Creative Enterprise courses will give students the opportunity to work and earn a living while they study towards a recognised qualification with the academy, which includes a comprehensive set of modules that cover sales and sales targets, internet sales, stock management, operations, consumer law, visual merchandising, fashion and trend forecasting, and product competency.

“We have been working with the trade for years to develop these qualifications and over the past two years the interest from employers in our expanding curriculum outside of manufacture has been immense,” says Holts Academy director Lee Lucas. “We have pledges from across the country for apprenticeship placements and pleas from employers far and wide to train their staff. ”

The Diploma in Jewellery Retail is in no way intended to act as a complete further education solution, students are expected to go on to further their training either through other courses at academies like Holts, university careers or apprenticeships. Those pursuing the apprenticeship scheme will be well placed for contacts after completing the diploma and for those who plan to go onto university the course when completed to Level 3 – there are Level 2 and Level 3 options – attracts UCAS tariff points.

Over the past decade or so it has become the norm for many school leavers to go straight to university, with a large chunk of students undertaking degrees without any defined job waiting for the after graduation day. In the new era of diminished job opportunities and rising top-up fees, suddenly a degree in philosophy or history of art doesn’t seem quite so appealing.

UNIVERSITY ALTERNATIVES
Nowadays school leavers want further education to offer practical skills that will help get them a job, and this has led many to investigate other options than traditional university courses.

The Gemmological Association of Great Britain claims to be the “world’s longest established gemmological teaching organisation” and is working hard to offer more sophisticated courses that ever before.

Last month it announced that, after several years of hard graft on the part of execs at the training organisation, Gem-A had succeeded successfully upgrading one of its courses to a level that is on par with an undergraduate bachelor degree. The Gem-A Gemmology Diploma Level 6 was officially upgraded by Ofqual, the regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland, which at the same time upgraded a number of other Gem-A courses, although none to as high a level.

“This is the culmination of several years of hard work in reviewing and updating our courses, so we’re really pleased to see great strides have been made,” says Gem-A chief executive James Riley. “We are constantly striving to increase the level of education we are able to give in regards to new theories and techniques. Our next step is to work in conjunction with a university partner to set up a full bachelor’s degree in gemmology, with full university accreditation.”

ON THE JOB LEARNING
But not everybody is a scholar. While it is a positive move that jewellery education is upgrading its qualifications, and as such the perception of the level of expertise needed to work in the industry, for some people books and tests are just not for them, and for others they simply don’t have the money to pay for pricey courses or the financial set up to survive a few years out of employment. Luckily there is an alternative.

Back in the old days, as many a jewellery industry veteran will tell you, apprenticeships were rife, in fact it was often the only way into the industry, but over the years apprenticeships fell by the wayside. In 2012, however, we have noted a massive resurgence of learning on the job, and thanks to some government interest in the jewellery trade, we could see a revival of the excellent tradition of apprentices.

Back in June the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced that it would be extending the National Skills Academy (NSA) for Creative & Cultural Skills’ remit to the jewellery sector. According to The NSA, it promises to “build on a significant track record to further enhance and develop career opportunities for talented young people in the jewellery sector, and provide them with the skills needed for the industry to prosper in the current economic climate”. In short, training with a job at the end of it and a wage as you learn.

APPRENTICESHIPS REVIEW
The reaction to the announcement – outside of concerns about the actual running of the NSA scheme and worries about what it would cost businesses to take apprentices on – was that of huge enthusiasm from the trade. In theory, everybody likes the idea and major business leaders, including Holts Academy and Holts Gems boss Jason Holt, have been very vocal about encouraging businesses to take on apprentices.

In February Holt was selected to head up an official government drive to get jewellery businesses to take on apprentices. But not only was he asked to be an ambassador for apprenticeships, he was charged with delivering a review of how apprenticeships fit in with modern businesses, particularly the SMEs that dominate the jewellery industry, to identify any hurdles that could stop jewellers taking on apprentices.

“It is vital that we make the apprenticeship route as accessible as possible for SMEs,” says Holt. “As the owner of several such companies, including an academy, I hope that I can use my experience to add value and make a positive and practical contribution to something so fundamental in the growth of business.”

In August Holt published his review, called Making Apprenticeships Work in SMEs, which you can download for free from professionaljeweller.com. The best-practice guide to apprenticeships focuses on helping businesses to decide whether an apprentice is right for them, how to select the best candidate, how to build productive working relationships and how to ensure that any apprentices go on to have successful careers in the industry.

“It is clear that there are many barriers – some real, some perceived – standing in the way of more SMEs going down this route,” says Holt. “My conversations with companies show that many still have an outdated view of apprenticeships, often regarding them as relevant only for those involved in manual trades. They are unsure how best to go about finding suitable candidates, have an unfounded concern that they will have to wade their way through masses of red tape and are worried they will have to invest too much time in getting young people work ready. This is a real shame. Apprentices are a great source of creativity and fresh ideas. They are raw talent that can be moulded to fit the culture and ethos of a business. Perhaps best of all, much of their off-site training, for those who are eligible, is funded by the government.”

Mentoring is another, less formal, way of training the next generation, and taking the time to share expertise with someone just starting out can also have benefits for your business.

Clive Billing, founder of online diamond jewellery and loose diamond retailer Diamond Geezer, has recently taken Lucy Mecklenburgh, one of the stars of docu-soap The Only Way Is Essex, under his wing as she prepares to launch a range of silver jewellery under her name. While Mecklenburgh will benefit from her mentor’s expertise and contacts, Billing also stands to gain something from the partnership as it is his company that is doing the design and manufacturing work, meaning that if the celebrity-backed jewellery line flies then he is in line for a pretty large manufacturing job.

TRAINING FOR THE BOSSES
Apprenticeships and mentoring schemes are very much based on the experienced teaching the inexperienced, but who is training the bosses? While industry veterans might think they have seen it all and so know it all, in a fast-moving market skills can quickly become outdated and businesses can lag behind younger, better trained competitors.

Simon Rainer, chief executive at the British Jewellers’ Association, says that teaching the top tier is something that the BJA has had recent experience with.

It recently teamed with Birmingham City Council to secure funding from the European Regional Development Fund to offer 40 jewellery businesses based in the West Midlands free training programmes.

The businesses selected were a mixed bag, says Rainer, but they were certainly not all start-ups. “We had start-ups to multimillion-pound companies, it was not just younger companies that wanted help,” he explains. “Some established businesses were looking to change their business model; one of them [an established businesses taking up the free training] is developing two new brands, it previously used to do own label, while another is essentially a B2B company but wants to go B2C.”

Rainer says that the cost of training can be a real turn off for businesses in the recession, which is why free schemes such as this are so popular. The BJA had “dipped its toe” into paid-for training courses last year but Rainer said that the uptake had been nowhere near the level he had been expecting. He says that the BJA will not attempt to run paid-for courses on its own again, but he does believe there is much need for knowledge and so intends to work together with other organisations to offer opportunities to its members. “I think there is a lot of room in our industry for help to be given,” he says.

CONFIDENCE BUILDING
The Platinum Guild International (PGI) is dedicated to regularly working with its retailer partners to train them on the best practices of selling platinum. Last month it teamed up with jewellery manufacturer Domino to hold a training day in Birmingham for retailers.

The event was attended by 20 retailers from across the UK, who all received a presentation on how to profit from platinum led by a PGI specialist sales trainer, to help them sell the metal with confidence.

The retailers were also given a tour of Domino’s manufacturing facility, including a demonstration of the casting process as well as a look the firm’s rapid-prototyping facilities, its setting department and in-house Assay Office.

Simon Belson, a jeweller based in Hatton Garden, says he was impressed by what he learnt on the day. “I now understand how long it takes to source just a small quantity of platinum and can really explain to customers why it is so rare and valuable and why it is the price it is,” he says.

While many full-time jewellery education courses will focus on making jewellery, there are lots of shorter courses dedicated to building up your knowledge as a retailer, such as the PGI’s training sessions or various hallmarking courses offered by the UK’s assay offices.

FINANCIAL BENEFITS
Avril Plant, director of Plants the Jewellers in Staffordshire, says she has experienced many benefits after deciding to bite the bullet and invest in staff training in the recession. The retailer is a fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and the National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) Institute of Registered Valuers and has a solid business, but Plant felt that there were areas that needed to be improved, particularly bookkeeping and retail management, so she headed to the NAG to see what it could offer.

“The training provided by the National Association of Goldsmiths in the form of a management diploma gave our team the skills to make substantial changes to not just the running of the business but to grow our customer base, reinvent our window displays and significantly increase our turnover,” says Plant. “Since then the importance of funding the overall development of all members of staff has become a deep-rooted ethos for us. We strongly believe that educating and encouraging learning in the workplace, outside the traditional in-house training methods, and the incorporation of external qualifications will safe-guard the future of retail jewellers and sales staff.”

A well trained workforce, as well as a well trained boss, makes for a strong proposition in tough trading times. And introducing new ideas and fresh blood through working groups and apprentice schemes can have untold rejuvenating effects on a business.

There are courses, workshops, free consultations and even university degrees out there to help you equip yourself and your staff with an extra edge, and when every sale has to be fought for an edge is exactly what can make all the difference.

 

 

This article was taken from the December 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.



 

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