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Skills to Future Proof the Fashion Industry

This article, by Catherine Cole, was originally published in the Robin Report on June 4, 2019 .

In addition to social and economic pressures, corporate social responsibility will be further shaped by the acceleration of technology in our lives and the workplace. The advent of technology has caused growth spurts throughout history. In the 1850s, we saw the age of mechanization (the Industrial Revolution), fuelled by water and steam; followed by mass production automation (electric power); then computerization and automation. Now in what is called the 4th Industrial Revolution, we face the era of cyber physical systems and robotics. What does that mean for the modern-day workforce?

It’s probable we will see huge disruption not just on industries but on its people, with significant shifts in labour markets, practices and working conditions. A robot coming after your job isn’t a new fear; it was reported by the Parade Magazine as early as September 1959 with the attention-grabbing headline “Will robots make people obsolete?” Not surprisingly, robotics emerged in the textile sector as early as the 1790s, particularly in operations requiring high levels of precision such as spinning. In short, we have had 200 years of worrying about the threat of machines taking over our jobs!

Automation is finally coming into fashion, with sewing robots that can produce clothes faster than human hands. In this episode of Moving Upstream, WSJ’s Jason Bellini takes a look at the latest technology and what it means for the 60 million people who work in the garment industry.

In that context, here are a few headlines to digest:

–  “Nearly 400 Million Workers Globally Will Need New Jobs by 2030 (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017).”

–  “Certain Jobs Are More Likely to Disappear Due to Automation – Production & Administration” (World Economic Forum, 2018)

–  “50,000 People Set to Retire in the Luxury Market in the Next Few Years,” Stefania Lazzaroni Managing Director of Italian Luxury Goods Association, Altagamma

–  “The Five Key Skills Expected to be Required in the Industry 4.0 Are: Digital Skills; Programming skills for Robots and Automation; Working with Tools and Techniques; Technology & Computer Skills; and Critical Thinking” (Stolzoff, 2018).

Skillset Pivot

The fact is, our labour force is being challenged, and with a rapidly retiring skillset and no pipeline skills or experience plus a fear of what tomorrow’s jobs will look like, the future feels uncertain.

The average shelf life of skills today is five years, making workplace training for business and individuals alike essential. For example, how many pattern makers have coding skills? This is just one example of the new blended skills which will be required as we approach Industry 4.0, ruled by automation and artificial intelligence.

The negative perception of a manufacturing career will be reversed as new career paths emerge for individuals with strong cognitive skills, grounded in mathematics and science. In apparel factories we are already witnessing the presence of cobots or collaborative robots that work alongside humans.

The market for cobots is expected to worth about $9b by 2025 according to research conducted by market research company Research and Markets. Alongside the challenges of new technology, we are also faced with failing to leverage the skills of a retiring workforce; the craft of our industry must be preserved as a foundation for innovation. Jonathan Anderson, fashion designer and creative director of Loewe recently railed against the “non-reality” of digital technology, reminding us of the beauty of handcrafted objects (Morby, 2018).

Is the Apparel Workforce Fit for a New Purpose?

For apparel businesses, the accelerating pace of change has been all-consuming – from competing with fast fashion, to facing pressure as retailers close brick-and-mortar stores — the focus has been firmly on the short-term strategies that will keep businesses thriving. As the industry embarks on the next industrial revolution (digitization), apparel businesses need to ensure that their workforces have the necessary technical skills in order to remain relevant and fit for the future, particularly as the current workforce ages.

The imperatives for businesses now include figuring out how to engage employees and provide professional development, or risk losing them. As the war for talent continues, apparel businesses must make more of an effort to attract people back into roles that may have been perceived as unglamorous.

There is now an opportunity for the apparel industry to rethink their supply chain talent and skills.

Businesses can get ahead by rejuvenating traditional roles and ways of doing things, while also rethinking employee talent and HR management.

Key headlines from Alvanon and MOTIF’s 2018 “State of Skills in the Apparel Industry” report included:

–  Respondents indicated a key area for training was technical/product development skills.

–  Barriers: 54 percent of respondents indicated time pressure as the biggest inhibitor for training, followed by relevant training not available and tight budgets (so cost-effective solutions required).

–  Only 42 percent of managers and 34 percent of non-managers were satisfied with current training.

– 73 percent of business leaders said that employee learning and skills development was a key business issue.

–  Across the board, executives globally ranked “reinventing careers and learning” as the second most critical business issue behind going digital, with 83 percent saying it was urgent (Deloitte, 2017).

Fashion Industry’s War for Talent Demands Vocational Skills

What came across loud and clear in the study was the real need for relevant, cost-effective training, with 70 percent of global organizations indicating that employees haven’t got the right skills.

Angie Lau, CEO of intimates factory Clover Group, said: “There is a huge gap between what our employees learn in school and what real life is like in the factory.” Created by parent company Alvanon, MOTIF was launched in October 2018, to bridge this gap and give access to training, professional development and mentorship from the industry’s leading practitioners. Education has long been part of the DNA of Alvanon. The MOTIF platform encourages and enables industry-wide education in technical and vocational skills. MOTIF online courses are presented by apparel experts with the most in-demand skills and are positioned as complementary to initial education, bringing work-based learning which is relevant to the industry challenges today.

As an apparel knowledge hub, MOTIF connects apparel professionals around the world with the skills and industry expertise that can transform their businesses, lives and careers. The fashion industry has been built on centuries of craftsmanship passed from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship.

The approach taken by MOTIF is to develop courses that are relevant to the industry today based on re-training the fundamentals (craft), shaped by new trends, technology and methodologies.

Today these age-old techniques combine with the most advanced technologies. The fashion world needs innovation, technical intelligence, and practical skills to tackle the challenges of the future and counter the global race for talent. MOTIF’s vision is for professionals at every stage of the value chain to be able to develop themselves continuously, anywhere, anytime.

The courses are suited to both newcomers to the industry and people in the sector who are looking to up-skill — and are easily accessible at any time across all devices. The step-by-step online courses take learners on an engaging journey, with interactive learning tools and multimedia course materials, including video and animation; punctuated by assessment, which is required for successful completion of specific modules. MOTIF recognizes the modern learner is not only more mobile, tech-savvy and collaborative but also time pressured, the courses are therefore between three-six hours in duration depending on the content.

The 2018 “State of Skills in the Apparel Industry” report indicates the most important area to address is technical/product development skills. Hence, some of the current courses include: Mechanics of Fit, a protocol for best practice fit process in business, Apparel Costing, an in-depth look at the key factors which impact price and Sustainability in Fashion, an introduction to the topic.

Bridging the skills gap for the fashion industry

World-class online courses by apparel experts

About Catherine Cole

With 25 years of experience in multinationals and startups in strategic roles, Catherine Cole is now spearheading the development of apparel e-learning platform MOTIF. Her passion is at the intersection of tech and education, being an ardent advocate of continuous professional development in fashion.

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