Clockmaker's craft winds down through lack of interest

24th March 2000 at 00:00
The old-timers are dying out and there is no one to replace them at the

horological helm, writes Martin Whittaker

THE LOFTY rooms of Upton Hall resound to the gentle ticking and clunking of clocks. Around the walls there are timepieces of every shape, size and age.

This Nottinghamshire mansion is home to the British Horological Institute, the professional body for watch and clock-making and repairs. And it was recently the setting for a summit meeting of top companies, training agencies, civil servants and college representatives.

They were told that due to a chronic skill shortage, time is running out for the traditional trade of horology.

As older watchmakers die out, few young people are coming in to replace them. And training is in decline in further education colleges.

There is no training in London since a three-year horology course at Hackney College closed six years ago. The nearest course is now in Birmingham. Tony Lewis, vice-chairman of the British Horological Institute, said young people perceived the trade as poorly-paid and old-fashioned.

"Only the approval of NVQs may change this despondent state," he said. "We have worked for many years for an NVQ in horology, and still we wait. Not until we get approval for our NVQ bid will the Careers Service even acknowledge our existence."

Meanwhile, business is booming. But as watch sales are increasing, especially at the high-quality end of the market, there are fewer trained people to service and repair them.

"All the service departments that I know about are having problems in recruitment and retention," he said.

"Who, in 10 years' time, will be repairing and servicing top-brand watches? Those people should be in training now."

A survey on the future of horological training, financed by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, found fundamental training problems within the industry.

Questionnaires were sent to about 750 businesses ranging from antiquarian clock repairers to large-scale manufacturers.

Sixty per cent of companies reported they had difficulty recruiting, nearly 96 percent had no apprenticeships, and there were none at all in Wales.

Firms were generally optimistic about their business prospects, but felt that they were held back by a lack of skilled people. One employer's comment was scathing. It said: "Horology in the UK is hopelessly under-resourced, under-valued and under-managed. Yet it assumes a traditional complacency."

The report said that the industry's training should be rebuilt and properly financed, and the pay and status had to be raised.

Pat Durkin of the Engineering and Maritime Training Authority said the industry should widen its perspective to look at associated trades, like laboratory instrument-making.

He said an existing NVQ in instrument servicing could give horology a much-needed way into the national qualification framework, and hence into funding.

Leslie Bryan, education officer for the British Horological Institute, said even the handful of colleges running horology courses were struggling to fill them.

Students have to fund themselves for three years, for little return at the end of their training.

"It's very difficult to get a student to do a course. And now students are struggling with our exams. Okay, they are very tough exams.

"But the colleges are now asking us to dumb down our exams so students can get through them. And I feel that's not really acceptable."

The BHI is now offering its own courses at Upton Hall. Students on a correspondence course would come for two months of intensive training. Courses include master watch and clock-maker, electronics, and conservation and restoration. Mr Bryan believes the institute's own courses could meet a burgeoning demand for skilled people to mend antique clocks.

"The colleges don't particularly like it," he said. "We are getting a little flak - they don't want us to go in and make our own college.

"But I believe the institute has now become the main focal point for training."

For further information, contact the

British Horological Institute, Upton Hall, Upton, Newark, Notts, NG23 5TE.

Telephone: 01636 8137956.

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