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Apparel industry faces critical shortage of skills

By Partner


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The fashion labour force is challenged on many fronts; innovation, technical intelligence and practical skills are needed more than ever, and yet, businesses of all sizes are facing a shortage of skills that is reaching critical levels. In a fast-paced industry such as fashion, and with technological advances and automation making an increasing mark on the sector, skills are becoming outdated much faster than ever before, which poses new demands on both individuals as well as corporate organisations. For instance, the last generation of people who possess hands-on experience in factories is now between 55 to 75 years old, and not enough skilled labour is coming through that can fill the growing void.

“We have a lot of industry experience that is retiring in the next 5 to 10 years - this is the last generation that has the extensive production floor and craft expertise that is needed. And similar to many other industries facing pipeline issues, skills are becoming obsolete much faster. It is no longer enough to graduate with a college degree and expect to stay relevant in a 40-year-career,” says Catherine Cole, Chief Executive of online knowledge hub MOTIF. “We have technological disruption that is raising a demand for a new blend of skills – these are skills around data, 3D, AI, programming etc. Age comes into this discussion, primarily because you have a large pool of talent that understands how things are made from a production point of view retiring soon. Then you have a younger workforce that has higher digital aptitude. The industry won’t evolve with one and not the other.”

Survey to determine global state of skills   

MOTIF specialises in providing access to training, professional development and mentorship from the industry’s top practitioners. Two years ago the company launched its first Global State of Skills survey, which highlighted the significant lack of skills in the fashion industry and defined the specific training needs experienced across different segments. Following the success of this insightful report, MOTIF has launched a new survey for publication in 2020, set to be once more an accurate barometer of the skills status quo in the fashion industry. MOTIF, in partnership with Alvanon and supporting organisations, is aiming to reach at least 1000 respondents from across 20 industry organisations for this comprehensive benchmark study.

Key issues to be highlighted include in which specific areas the industry is experiencing skills gaps, in what ways businesses are being hindered by skills shortages, which areas should be prioritised for immediate training as well as which obstacles the industry is experiencing for up-skilling and talent development. “These are key questions we are asking professionals across the supply chain and we want the perspective of top executives as well as employees. We want to know how business leaders view the skills gaps and how individual employees, no matter their level, see their own professional development, as well as how important training and learning is to their engagement levels”, says Cole.

Education and training more important than ever

Two years on from the original study, there is a sense that a lack of skills may still be one of the most pressing issues the industry is facing, which the second edition of the survey intends to vet. Gaps in key competencies across the whole supply chain, from fibre to finished garment and from in-house teams to external supply chain partners, are still prevalent. According to Cole, the increasing demand for sustainability means a stronger understanding of textile science and fabric innovation is needed from concept through product development. “Injecting efficiency and transparency in the value chain means an increased usage of 3D and analysis of data. The competencies can no longer be confined to single roles but need to be available throughout a company’s whole production eco-system. This encompasses not just in-house skills, but the skills and competencies of partners need to be compatible, too.”

A good example of the skills gap is 3D. “Everybody is talking about it, yet few have cracked this nut. Companies just don’t know where to start and how to transform their legacy processes. Education is needed not just at the software usability level, i.e. which software do we use and how do we use it with our current 2D processes, but also at the management level, where bigger issues arise on how it fits in company strategy and how to go about the transformation,” she explains.

Current roadblocks

Time and mindset are often cited as the biggest hurdles when it comes to companies implementing a stronger emphasis on training and development. For businesses, training is a costly investment, and in a tough trading climate, training and employee development are often the first to be cut from budgets. While many executives acknowledged in the 2018 survey the importance of employee engagement via professional development and saw it as a matter of priority, actions were not following, with training budgets mostly staying static or not anticipated to grow very significantly. It will be interesting to see whether this critical aspect has changed in the 2020 survey results.

Meanwhile, for staff, training can feel like a burden, it distracts from daily obligations, deadlines, meetings and so on, and it can be difficult for employees to carve out even half an hour for training when work schedules are busy and packed. It is not all doom and gloom, however. Forward thinking companies are starting to see the benefit of skills development, seeking new tools and increasingly thinking out of the box to provide training that fits into their workers’ lives. This, however, has to be embedded in company culture and trickle down from management to workforce. “At the end of the day, it comes down to a growth mindset in a company, where constant learning is supported in daily jobs. If this doesn’t come from the top, companies will struggle with seeing any tangible results, and training just becomes something employees have to check off in order to get their paycheck,” says Cole.

This is also confirmed by the International Apparel Federation (IAF), which has been among the organisations endorsing the Global State of Skills survey initiative from its first edition. “It’s a mistake to think the accelerated entry of technology in our industry makes people and therefore education less important. On the contrary! More education and training is needed for our industry to be able to embrace technology to become a smarter and more sustainable industry, better for all the people it employs,” says Matthijs Crietee, Secretary General, IAF.

Online training courses such as those offered by MOTIF are starting to gain traction, as they can offer a flexible approach with original educational material taught by industry practitioners and focused on learning experiences that are on-demand and tailored to the individual professionals and company teams. MOTIF tools allow companies to scale learning across different territories, not only for their own employees, but also their supply chain partners, ultimately facilitating the effective transfer of industry knowledge.

Action is needed - now

One thing is certain, the skills that will be in demand over the next decade will be very different to today, and this goes for low skilled, middle skills and high-tech skills, no category will be immune. “It’s probably safe to say that in the next 10 to 15 years a high percentage of the jobs that people are being trained for today won’t exist,” says Cole. Addressing the skills gap within companies now is not only a crucial step in future-proofing the sector, but is also a paramount component for the wider business strategy of companies and their bottom line. “Pressures on profit margins and consumer demands for sustainability and transparency mean one thing in the supply chain – efficiency. We will only get there by harnessing digitization and data and all this is underpinned by human skills. You can have all the best technology and data in the world, but need the skills and brainpower to operate, analyse and execute,” adds Cole. “Those that don’t take action will find themselves left behind. There needs to be an active mission to both upskill current employees who know the company culture and have the benefit of longevity in experience, as well as look outside the industry to bring in new talent and skills,” she concludes.

To take part in the State of Skills Survey 2020, click here.

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