Jason Holt gives jewellery designers a golden opportunity

If the Government was still talking about the “Big Society”, Jason Holt could be one of its poster boys, reports The Telegraph.

The entrepreneur has overhauled the way that London’s jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden, trains the next generation of designers and manufacturers and is now advising the Coalition on how it can get firms across the country to take on more apprentices.

In what sounds like most owner-managers’ idea of Hell, Holt has spent a decade working with other businesses, successive governments and academic bodies to build what is still the only accredited apprenticeship scheme for his sector. Plaudits have proved hard to come by, however.

“Doing this has aged me beyond my years,” he says. “A lot of the traders still don’t understand why I’ve done it. Does everyone appreciate what I’ve done? No. Do I care? No.”

When the former lawyer took control of his family business, Holts Jewellery, in 1999, he saw an industry facing interminable decline.

While Hatton Garden had begun to transform itself into a haven for low-volume, high-quality specialist retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers in response to the threat from low-cost imports, it was facing a skills shortage – with no one in the UK providing any formal professional training.

Holt’s response puzzled staff and competitors alike – he wanted to turn his company’s informal training scheme into an accredited programme that could help provide skills for an entire industry.

“People couldn’t understand why we’d train someone to do what we do – no one else was doing it, so we’d just be training the competition,” he said. “But my hunch was, by growing the industry for the future we’d have a place in it. Otherwise we’d all die.”

Within months of offering an initial course in stone cutting, his eight-employee firm had 70 students. Holt’s Academy of Jewellery, the not-for-profit operation that has emerged from the experiment, now trains 1,000 jewellery designers and manufacturers each year across three London sites.

He has also secured a deal with the local authority that means landlords wanting to turn offices or retail sites into residential property first have to offer subsidised rents to the jewellery sector for a set period – an agreement that has provided a home for two of Holt’s colleges.

The 1,000-odd jewellery businesses that he says surround his own company, which is mainly a supplier to the trade, can create “any sort of jewellery you can imagine within an hour”.

“What you see is the shops, but workshops and craftsmen, manufacturers, stone dealers, diamond dealers – it’s all behind doors. It’s become a lot more fragmented and specialised but all the skills are still here.”

The Government is expected to publish Holt’s work on access to apprenticeships next month.