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There’s a Skills Shortage in Fashion—Is Poor Training to Blame?

The skills needed to create, develop and produce garments are a widely crucial element that drives the fashion ecosystem, and now more than ever as the industry increasingly relies on digital technologies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But unfortunately, for the industry, it has become glaringly obvious that those skills simply aren’t there, or at least at the level they should be.

In fact, 57 percent of fashion organizations feel their companies have difficulties filling positions due to the lack of skilled workforce, according to a study from fashion e-learning platform Motif in collaboration with parent company, apparel business and product development consultancy Alvanon. The pair tapped 19 leading apparel organizations to conduct the survey.

Jackie Lewis, course development director at Motif, bluntly addressed the reality of the situation.

“We have a lack of skilled people to drive forward the necessary level of change within the industry,” Lewis said. “And until recently, there wasn’t the right education and trainers available for their people within the market.”

The State of Skills in the Apparel Industry 2020 survey pointed to a training gap across the board, as respondents cited important issues going into 2021, yet feel that these subjects haven’t been emphasized over the past year.

For example, 46 percent of the 900 apparel professionals surveyed see product development as an important topic over the next 12 months, yet somehow only 21 percent have seen any significant training on the subject. Similarly, 38 percent see product design and development software operations as a major part of fashion’s future, even though only 22 percent got any training on it.

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This gap extends to all facets of the 2021 fashion environment, including fashion design, patternmaking, sustainability and environmental management, leadership/HR training, research development and soft skills such as selling, communication or negotiation.

Companies in this year’s survey are looking to upskill current workers, with 46 percent citing it as a priority. Among smaller companies with less than $50 million in annual revenue, 53 percent are focusing on upskilling.

But workers in technical roles aren’t getting enough mid-career development, which is driving increased dissatisfaction. The Motif survey highlighted a point from a study by human resources and leadership analyst John Bersin that found that many employees have a sense of mistrust and anxiety around the future of their roles within businesses due to the current economic and technological environment.

“81 percent of employees believe that upskilling is their own personal problem. They don’t trust us as employers to help them,” said Bersin.

The data points to an overall dissatisfaction across the entire value chain regarding training, with only 34 percent of respondents saying they are satisfied with the process, lower than the 38 percent documented in the 2018 State of Skills survey.

And 32 percent highlight the lack of, or insufficient, training as their top gripe in their educational programs, while 19 percent said the content was not practical enough.

Part of the issue appears to stem from a disconnect between upper management and employees about how training should take place. Seventy-seven percent of executives surveyed feel employees do not proactively take courses, with 44 percent saying staff only do so when forced. Yet when junior and associate employees were asked, 71 percent claimed they proactively take courses, the survey said.

When asked, 59 percent said they agreed that employees in their company could suggest training to a superior or select their own training.

Alvanon CEO Janice Wang described how her company approached technological transformation as it shifts away from producing physical fiberglass dress forms and towards 3D design.

“Some of the best factory masters have been with the business for 15 years. We spoke candidly with them to understand what they wanted for their careers, explained what we are seeing as the future,” Wang said. “One of them said that they could transfer their skills and do 3D training, taking their physical molding skills and moving them over into 3D. Their expertise combined with the new skills has brought new ideas, and a timetabled transition to bring their teams into these new methodologies.”

If employees across all levels can agree on something, it’s that blending online and instructor-led training appears to be the answer—53 percent of founders, top managers and junior-level employees alike preferred blending the two sides, while 54 percent of department heads and middle managers agreed. Motif specializes in a training called continual learning, which is designed to function across channels and deliver courses, training materials and assessment tools suitable for new and old employees alike so that skills are learned throughout the entire job lifecycle.

“As companies scramble to move online, training can be even more impactful when it is a combination of both offline and online interactivity,” said Catherine Cole, CEO of Motif. “Whether it’s product development processes or 3D workflows, blended training offers the best of both online and in-person training, combining modules of online courses together with on-site training led by expert instructors.”

Like many other scenarios that invite challenge, the training barriers in 2020 come largely from two key factors, according to the respondents—a lack of time and money. Forty-three percent of the professionals stated budget constraints were a top barrier, while 41 cited time constraints. A quarter attributed it to a lack of relevant content, while 24 percent said it was simply a low priority.