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Garment Workers and Gamification: Upskilling for Apparel’s Automated Future

The coming tsunami of automation in apparel manufacturing threatens to displace millions of largely female workers in developing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia. One new fashion tech firm thinks it has found a way to help scores of workers on the lowest rungs of the supply chain transition to more valuable roles with a little help from gamified training technology.

In a new report, fashion startup Shimmy makes a case for retraining low-skill employees ahead of the impending transition to a new manufacturing paradigm that relies more on digital and automated technology than labor-intensive manual assembly.

Certain countries are far more exposed to the threat of automation than others. India, for example, employs 45 million people in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector, but clothing shipped outside its borders account for just 6 percent of the country’s total exports. On the other hand, Shimmy pointed out that 74 percent of Bangladesh’s exports stem from apparel manufacturing, which provides jobs for 4 million workers today.

Some say robotic sewing machines are a necessary step toward enhancing speed to market and reshoring jobs in Western countries, but this equipment threatens the livelihoods of women who, by some accounts, make up 75 percent of all garment workers worldwide, Shimmy noted. Women are overrepresented in the garment workforces in countries like Cambodia (81 percent) and Vietnam (77 percent) where major brands source sports apparel and footwear. What’s more, prevailing cultural norms could result in men disproportionately securing jobs as automation upends apparel production, largely to “perpetuate the male breadwinner model,” Shimmy noted in the report.

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Though retraining a female labor pool for the next era in apparel production may seem like a no-brainer, there are a number of obstacles to achieving this goal. For one, cultural norms can dissuade some women from accessing the internet and using smartphones, inhibiting basic digital literacy “because of negative social perceptions, safety concerns, and disapproval from family members.”

That means brands need to partner with their production vendors to ensure the right approach to retraining.

Shimmy, founded by CEO Sarah Krasley, wanted to see how a small group of current RMG workers with varying levels of digital literacy would respond to a gamified approach to learning new patternmaking skills. It set out to build software that’s “as addictive as Candy Crush” while remaining approachable like a trusted friend or sister and adding unquestionable value to top-name apparel brands sans the multi-year investment required for other types of training programs.

The result: Shimmy Upskill, a tablet-based software that marries proven gaming techniques with learning objectives designed to educate and encourage exploration. Each learning module features touch navigation and  incorporates voice narration and video instructions so that regardless of their digital literacy level, workers can access and interact with the information at hand in a way they find comfortable and familiar. Text is written in English and the worker’s native language.

Grants from C&A Foundation and the New York State Workforce Development Institute facilitated the beta test, which drew participation from a total of 17 female workers from Bangladesh’s DBL Group (used by Target and Puma) and M&J Group (used by H&M and Old Navy) and Indonesia’s PT Sport Glove (used by Under Armour and Wilson). Most of the workers operated sewing machines in their daily jobs, though the group included sample makers, quality assurance inspectors, quality checkers and overlock machine operators.

Shimmy learned that while the beta group seemed comfortable interacting with the 2D pattern samples featured in the Shimmy Upskill software, more work needs to be done to familiarize workers with 3-D figures. Feedback from participants revealed that they gained a greater holistic understanding of the apparel production process and learned a few English words, like “scissors,” that would help in their jobs. Most liked the gamified experience, describing it as an opportunity to interact with peers. Meanwhile, those employed in quality assurance said using tablets would improve their day-to-day responsibilities.

Not every garment worker will remain in the industry as it evolves; many will find employment elsewhere. But millions will need to prepare for new, more complex responsibilities. “We believe thoughtfully designed, disruptive technology is a cost-effective means to reskill and upskill sewing machine operators and other line workers with digital skills before 2025,” the report noted.

With production cycles shrinking from months to weeks, brands likely will favor vendor partners whose workers embrace digital tools like 3-D virtual prototyping, the report explained.

Using a tool like Shimmy Upskill, the company said, would help apparel brands achieve “stronger alignment of production strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”