Martin Whittaker looks at efforts to give a youthful sparkle to Birmingham's historic jewellery quarter.
STEPPING into Birmingham's jewellery quarter is like stepping back in time. Its rows of fine redbrick buildings are seen as a national treasure.
Behind the elegant facades, in a maze of alleyways, lies the heart of Britain's jewellery industry - manufacturers, metalworkers, bullion and gem dealers, and a host of associated trades.
In its heyday in 1913, this small area employed 70,000 people. Today some 6,000 still work here.
But economic pressures, such as cheap imports from the Far East, have taken their toll on an industry, much of which still relies on manufacturing methods unchanged for centuries.
There has also been a chronic skills shortage, with an ageing workforce, and a dearth of young people coming into the trade.
But now companies are taking steps to beat this skills gap with help from the School of Jewellery.
The school, based in the quarter, dates back to 1890 and was founded by the Birmingham Jewellers and Silversmiths' Association and the Municipal School of Art. It is now part of the University of Central England.
The school offers courses ranging from City amp; Guilds to degrees and post-graduate qualifications. It is also a centre for national vocational qualification assessment and training within the industry, and runs an innovation centre to keep students and the industry up to date.
Last year it helped introduce Modern Apprenticeships to local firms. A dozen apprentices have gained qualificatins and another batch is now going through.
"There needed to be a nationally recognised apprenticeship," says Clare Purt, an NVQ assessor.
"A lot of companies were taking on apprentices but only for in-house training. Considering how new it (the Modern Apprenticeship) is, it's been very successful."
The need for such training is urgent. Ms Purt says: "If they're not prepared to train people now, in 10 years time we are going to be in a real crisis."
A few streets away is the G amp; A Ltd, Britain's biggest jewellery manufacturer which supplies many high-street stores.
The company was quick to spot the skills gap and began training apprentices six years ago.
Training as a jeweller can be a long process. In the firm's nine carat department, apprentice setter Jeanette Coady, 22, has recently completed NVQ level 2 - but it has taken her over four years to get there.
The work is intense and meticulous. Accomplished workers can set a stone in a ring in three minutes. "We do expect a certain level of performance," says production manger Carla Goodfellow. "And the quality has to be there."
Another company nearby, Toye, Kenning amp; Spencer, makes medals and badges.
The work is very specialist, says production manager Mark Newitt. But the NVQ has allowed training in this traditional craft to be recognised. "There's a lot of things that we do that nobody else does," he says. "The skill level we require is a lot greater than many other firms."
For further information contact the School of Jewellery, 0121 331 5940.