The British watch industry’s chronic shortage of watchmakers has been described as one of the greatest threats to its long-term future. However, a programme being developed under the UK government’s Trailblazer apprenticeship scheme may provide a solution.
Announced in 2013, Trailblazer encourages employers to create apprenticeship standards that meet their needs. Previously, training providers had set the criteria. In response, leading figures from the British watch industry have joined forces to define a watchmaking apprenticeship standard and to try to stem the decline in the country’s number of watchmakers.
The group is being led by Matt Bowling, servicing director of pre-owned, premium watch retailer WatchFinder & Co, a business that relies heavily on watchmakers to sustain its £60m annual turnover.
“The shortage of watchmakers in the industry is glaring,” says Mr Bowling, who employs eight full-time watchmakers. “People who are serious about being in the watch industry over the next 20 years have no choice but to do something about it.”
In June, Mr Bowling chaired a meeting of 16 leading figures from the British watch industry and representatives from several brands, retailers and administrative bodies. The group is working on a watchmaking apprenticeship specification which it hopes will be included in the Trailblazer scheme’s “craftsperson” apprenticeship standard. Approval is expected before the end of the year.
According to GfK POS Tracking, UK sales of mechanical watches rose from 168,000 in 2010 to 235,000 in 2014, an increase of 40 per cent. In time, those watches will need servicing, placing a burden on the watchmaking industry it is not expected to be able to meet. There are no official figures for the number of UK watchmakers, but they are believed to be in the low to mid-hundreds.
Birmingham University offers 14 undergraduate places a year and the British School of Watchmaking (BSoW) in Manchester a further eight to trainee watchmakers. While a valuable contribution, it only scratches the surface of the problem.
The British Horological Institute had been trying unsuccessfully to generate support for a government-funded apprenticeship scheme for eight years before the Trailblazer plan was announced.
Dudley Giles, chief executive of the BHI, says: “Until the government turned the system on its head, it had been hard for the watch industry to get funding for a watchmaking apprenticeship scheme.”
Mr Giles, who will become a training provider when the apprenticeship standard is put in place, sees great potential in the government’s revised strategy. “The training providers will be the servants of the employers,” he says.
If the apprenticeship standard and assessment plan devised by Mr Bowling’s group are adopted and become part of the Trailblazer scheme, British watch companies could be taking on apprentices as early as next year.
Employers would receive funding from the government for each apprentice taken on. How much funding has yet to be determined, but the industry is pushing for the upper band, given the high costs involved in training a watchmaker.
However, Mr Bowling thinks more should be done. “I would like to think that people in the industry realise that to preserve British watchmaking they need to invest in it,” he says.
“I’ve never been able to reconcile that you have these enormous brands that have so much money, and yet it still costs £16,000 to do the course in Manchester. If you’re committed to getting people into watchmaking, then let’s see it,” he adds.
Mark Hearn, managing director of Patek Philippe in the UK and a former director of the BSoW, agrees. “Other organisations need to be encouraged and developed. There’s an increasing demand for young watchmakers.”
Historically, one of the stumbling-blocks has been the notorious inability of the various factions within the British watchmaking industry to collaborate.
“I’d like to see the British watchmaking industry work closer together,” says Nick English, founder of Bremont, a British watch brand represented at June’s meeting. “For this industry to grow, we need a proper apprenticeship scheme.”
Another hurdle is the reputation of watchmaking as a dusty and outmoded profession — aspiring technicians are more likely to enter IT or engineering. And, even if the watchmaking apprenticeship standard is adopted, there is no guarantee it will lead to successful recruitment. That will depend on the industry’s ability to advertise itself to potential watchmakers.
“I’d like to go into schools and sit one of our 25-year-old watchmakers earning £40,000 a year, in front of 16-year-old kids and tell them about being a watchmaker,” says Mr Bowling.
“I want them to consider watchmaking, because, if you can do the job, you’re going to be employed for ever.”