National Skills Academy has stepped in but will the industry comply?

In June the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural Skills is set to extend to the jewellery sector, but what will happen next? Kathryn Bishop reports.

Last month the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced it is extending the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural Skills to the jewellery sector, signalling a fresh raft of investment in the trade and a boost to apprenticeship schemes across the country.


According to The National Skills Academy (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”.

The news was something that key members of the industry – Holts Academy director Lee Lucas, Goldsmiths’ Centre director Peter Taylor and British Jewellers’ Association (BJA) chief executive Simon Rainer – were working towards before the scheme was announced by the NSA, with each organisation offering a form of training or apprenticeship in the jewellery sector.
Lucas, who is based in London’s Hatton Garden, says he has been building up Holts’ jewellery apprenticeships for the past five years and he believes that the announcement is good news for the industry despite some voicing reservations about the scheme.

“Employers have had mixed reactions, some are very willing while others are suspicious about what these apprenticeships can offer them,” Lucas explains. “But the key thing from my point of view is the qualification and the fact that the programs will be developed by the industry to include the skills that are representative of what business are doing and need from the industry.”

Lucas explains that apprentices on Holts Academy’s current programs will learn, in their first year, everything from enamelling and hand engraving to stone setting and CAD. There are then two later stages which will allow them to grow skills in a particular area of choice, with the final level akin to the training received at degree level to create apprentices that have a level of skill that ensures they are industry ready.

However some jewellers and manufacturers have aired concerns about the type of training and funding that the schemes have promised, as well as the actual skills set to be taught by apprenticeship schemes.

Apple Nooten-Boom of precious metals casting specialist Hean Studio commented on the news when it was published online at He stated that the industry needs more apprentices learning traditional skills, rather than CAD design, to help them better understand manufacturing techniques and issues. “I do hope with this initiative that the funding is finally properly structured to compensate the trainer, and to fund the trainee,” he said. “Past government initiatives were a false start in that the claimed funding for training only went to funding a government department to administer the training programme.”

The majority of apprentices working with manufacturers or jewellers tend to be taught skills appropriate to the needs to the company, states Lucas, something that Kayleigh Wright of large-scale jewellery repairs company and manufacturer Maker Mends agrees with.

“We’ve had apprentices for about 10 years and at present have two in our watch repairs department, one in our settings department and one in our workshop,” she says.

However some of the late-teenage apprentices that Maker Mends has taken on, while enthusiastic and trained in metalwork through college, have lacked skills in any one area of jewellery manufacture or repair because they have dipped their toe into so many, so quickly while studying.

“Our founder David Lewis has found the training that they’re receiving in college just isn’t substantial for what we expect from them,” explains Wright. “Many of them don’t know basics such as how to file correctly, nor do they know how to bend metal with control.”

As a result, says Wright, Maker Mends has spent a great deal of time letting its apprentices move around different parts of the company to find out where their talents lie or what they enjoy.

It is not uncommon for employers considering apprentices to be weighed down by the perception that anyone leaving school at the age of 16 must be uneducated or unwilling to work. But, says Lucas, such a viewpoint is becoming ever further from the truth as apprenticeships become ever-more attractive routes into working life.

“Most employers are looking for an apprentice aged between 19 and 23 – those who have some work experience or are a little wise to the world,” he explains. “We have also worked with some employers who welcome students aged over 24, mature students in some ways.”

Another concern for employers looking to take on an apprentice is that of the money that is involved. While the NSA will offer some funding and the government also offers cash for apprentices, it is down to the employer to pay an apprentice and at present the minimum hourly wage an apprentice can be paid is £2.60, often based on a 30-hour working week. Any equipment, tools, computers or materials that are purchased to help the apprentice with their learning will be tax deductible, however.

“Some employers want the government to give them money for what is essentially a valued member of staff, a part of their team,” explains Lucas, who adds that the government has this year offered grants of about £1,500 for employers taking on an apprentice, with £700 paid up front and the remaining half paid after the apprenticeship is complete.

The NSA’s involvement should at the very least encourage retailers to think twice about the positive aspects of bringing a young person into the jewellery industry, as potential makers of tomorrow.

While Lucas concedes that the target teenage age group “isn’t always aware of our industry”, believing that apprenticeships are for plumbers or electronic engineers, he says that once they know that jewellery is now an option this quickly changes.
“It’s all about getting fresh blood into the industry,” says Lucas. “We go into schools and tell them what we do and we’ve really seen the effect and enthusiasm of 16- and 17-year-olds.”

At the Goldsmiths’ Company apprenticeship schemes take a more traditional route. Its indentured schemes partner an apprentice with a master for between three and five years, from the age of 16. The master they work for will be part of a jewellery business, whether in one of London’s West End fine jewellers or among the hub of jewellery manufacturers and retail businesses in Hatton Garden.

“What’s interesting about the development of apprenticeships in the jewellery sector is that the employers will be able to influence the kind of training that the NSA provides,” explains Taylor. “The NSA’s involvement is going to provide dialogue and advice for employers as well as potential apprentices.”

One company that is working with apprentices through the Goldsmiths’ Company is Theo Fennell. Its workshop manager Ian Baker says the scheme has allowed it so teach the “art of a jeweller” to its apprentices.

“The apprentices we have had are familiar with a very basic knowledge when they arrive [but] we also have them on a three-month trial pre-apprenticeship to make totally sure they have the suitable skills,”
he explains.

A recent Theo Fennell apprentice, Phillip Wilkins, worked to create an Egyptian-inspired jewel-encrusted Cleopatra Brooch, a design later entered into the Goldsmiths Craft and Design Council awards and prize-winner in the Diamond Mounters Junior Gold Award and the Holts Academy Special Award.

Baker believes apprentices are key to keeping traditional jewellery skills alive, something he says is vital to the industry now and for the future. “We would hope to keep our apprentices once they have finished their training,” he explains. “We have one who finished his five-year training a year ago and is still with the company and doing really well.”

Identifying the skills needed at particular jewellers has been a key part of what the NSA will offer the industry. As a result the BJA and Creative and Cultural Skills (CC Skills) have been working together to reach out to about 15 UK employers – those it has dubbed industry leaders from across the sector – to help identify the gaps in skills that it believes apprentices should be learning and becoming more proficient at.

While Rainer says that the propriety work for the scheme has already been done, it is now time for those industry leaders contacted by the BJA and CC Skills to pull together a model of ideals to present to the NSA outlining the route in which it wants to take UK jewellery apprenticeships.

“The NSA will allow us to present the apprenticeships on a national level and will afford us with more exposure,” explains Rainer. “One of the NSA’s first projects once we have our ideals in place will be the setting up of a website for jewellery apprenticeships which will be great for driving traffic as people already know of the NSA and its work in other sectors.”

Rainer adds that the BJA has always wanted to launch a national apprenticeship scheme and in fact it plans to launch a similar model to that built up by Lucas in Birmingham in September to go “hand in hand” with Holts’ Academy’s London-based program.

Rainer, Lucas and Taylor worked closely together to pitch and present the need for a more structured apprenticeship scheme to the NSA and Rainer says that both Lucas and Taylor’s work has helped bring these opportunities to the fore for young people interested in being part of the industry’s future.

From here Rainer says that while there is no definite timescale as to how long the process will take, there will be a steady release of information, revealing who in the industry will oversee what aspects of the NSA scheme, a project that he says is “very exciting” for the UK jewellery industry, a statement many will surely agree with.

This article was taken from the July 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.