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The Skills Gap is Widening Whether Your Company is Ready or Not

When the topic of automation and jobs comes up, inevitably, talk turns to how many people are projected to lose out in favor of technology.

But while that argument rages—with one camp claiming innovation is a threat to our livelihoods and the other certain tech will open the door to even more opportunities—there’s less talk about how to create a workforce that can adapt to the rapid pace of change.

“It used to be that you graduated and you had all the tools you needed, and then went into a 40 year career. There’s been a lot of buzz just generally about how that’s no longer the case,” said Catherine Cole, director of corporate development at Alvanon, which consults with companies to help them close skills gaps.

Today skills become obsolete almost instantaneously, which means companies can start to lag behind almost as quickly. “I sense there’s a feeling that it’s urgent but there’s still an [uncertainty about] what to do,” she said.

But they definitely must take action. In Cole’s estimation, the companies that aren’t on board with continuously reskilling their workforces will face drastic consequences in the next five years.

While technology is often to blame for this constant state of flux, there are other factors, Cole said.

What makes this a particularly pivotal time for the apparel industry is that as a portion of the workforce ages, some fundamental product development skills are at risk of becoming extinct. “When manufacturing was outsourced to Asia 10 or 15 years ago, a lot of those skills were also outsourced. Skills like patternmaking, grading, blocking—suddenly you have startups that just don’t have the fundamental understanding about the importance of fit in product development. You have brands that their headquarters teams no longer have a sound understanding of these skills,” she said. “Most of these people have never been on a production floor.”

Ah, but aren’t there apps for that now? Sure, there’s software that can provide 3-D renderings or eliminate the need for traditional sketching in design but Cole contends that these are just tools. They still need to be manipulated by people who know what they’re doing, she said. “You can be experienced in using the software but you still require an understanding of the fundamentals of patternmaking, body growth, grading and blocking,” according to Cole. “It’s a new blend of skills that are needed.”

Retaining that institutional knowledge as well as trusted networks is one reason why adult education company General Assembly is a big proponent of corporations that spearhead lifelong learning for its employees rather than turning to new hires for new skills. But even if that argument doesn’t resonate with executives, the stats showing its more cost effective than hiring a whole new workforce is.

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“The Fortune 1,000 companies spend on average $900 per year on employee training. At the same time, if you look at the cost to fill open roles in software engineering, for example, it’s $20,000 to $30,000 in placement costs and lost productivity,” explained Charlie Schilling, general manager for Enterprise Business at General Assembly.

Evolution is inevitable

In its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte found that it’s not just apparel facing pressure from innovation. “Virtually all CEOs (90 percent) believe their company is facing disruptive change driven by digital technologies, and 70 percent say their organization does not have the skills to adapt,” the report noted.

[Read more: McKinsey: Automation Could Displace as Many as 800 Million Jobs, and Here’s Which Ones Will Go]

Further, the consulting firm said as corporations move to tear down silos separating corporate departments, “there is also a new focus on convergence—bringing together disciplines such as sales, marketing, design, finance, and IT onto cross-functional teams to build products and solutions faster.”

Technology is also fostering this move toward new hyphenate skillsets. For instance, Cole recently encountered someone who had tried in vein to hire patternmakers with coding skills. Frustrated, he eventually opted for coders who he could train in patternmaking. It’s the once odd mix of skills like this that today’s industry demands. But it’s unrealistic for HR departments to expect resumes like this to magically land in their inboxes. These days, business have to invest in employee education if they want them to fulfill these Frankenstein functions.

The question becomes how do apparel firms foster this career development? Alvanon is currently conducting a “State of the Industry” survey to provide a snapshot of current processes, what’s working and what needs improvement when it comes to employee learning programs.

Though survey responses are still coming in, a few things are already evident, namely time and budget are the biggest hurdles keeping apparel firms from implementing training programs.

“They don’t have enough resources. There’s a lot of on-the-job training,” Cole said. She added the tough economic straits many companies are navigating are only exacerbating the problem. “When budgets are squeezed, training is the first thing that gets cut.”

That’s a bad thing both for corporations and its employees, especially for millennials, who Deloitte says expect their employers to continuously provide this type of support.

“To stay cutting edge in your field, you have to keep learning,” Schilling said. “It’s not one and done.”