All of us have to agree with the fact that the efficiency in an apparel factory goes up when workforce is respected and nurtured. Most of the factories which are dependent on bulk orders maintain a difficult financial position in order to sustain in long run and it’s time to do better financial planning and have certain amount of contingency reserve, so that economic crisis can be absorbed without much of an impact. And, this can be done not just by investment in technology but also by investment in strengthening relation with workforce and upgrading their skill sets.

The extreme pressure on factories and brands to deliver better, faster, more sustainable fashion to a diverse consumer demographic, demands that companies embrace the innovations and skill sets that will help them succeed. Not just this, the industry needs to ponder on how skills are distributed across the organisation because, in many cases, there is an increased pressure on employees to be more multifaceted in their skill sets.

According to 2020 State of Skills Survey , conducted by MOTIF – an apparel knowledge hub that connects professionals around the world with the skills and industry expertise they need to transform their businesses, lives and careers –it has been found that businesses’ priorities are changing, yet investment into these new emergent issues is not matching with the needs. For workers in technical roles, there is not enough mid-career development, which is driving increased dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, the future talent pipeline for the industry is dwindling due to retiring skills, a lack of quality professional training resources and a shortage of new industry entrants with the relevant skills.

As companies move through the current crisis, those that succeed will be those that continue to invest and future-proof their businesses and workforce. In the MOTIF’s survey, employee training and skill development remains the top priority for businesses, with 90 per cent of respondents describing it as very important or important , followed by sustainability practices (89 per cent) and strategic sourcing (87 per cent).

Catherine Cole, CEO and Executive Director at MOTIF , shared, “Over the last 10 years, it has slowly become apparent that as an industry we need a new blend of skills (that involve data, software and collaboration) and that we have a shortage of people with production floor experience. That’s why MOTIF was born, to provide a digital platform for the industry to create, share and nurture best practices and knowledge for professionals,” adding, “Before COVID all the talks were about ‘Automation’…This supply chain has been doing things the same way as it was doing a decade ago and to change it is a daunting task. From MOTIF point of view, we see it this way – Old generation which holds expertise in the subjects is retiring and the fashion factory floor is not an interesting area for the young generation. Hence, a need is there to make this industry interesting for the young generation and that can be done only if they are motivated to learn new skills.”

How to manage the skill gaps?

Apparel manufacturing industry is often compared with the automobile industry in terms of system and process implementation as well as training of the workforce. Those who have worked in both automobile and apparel sectors are the best ones to define the differences and one of such professionals shared with Apparel Resources , “If you are working in a vendor company of an automobile giant like Maruti Suzuki , you will know your company invests in your training and skill developments because you have to meet the quality requirements of Maruti Suzuki. They send you to take training in Maruti Suzuki group where certified and qualified trainers take hours of session son topics that are brutally relevant to the shopfloor practices such as 7 QC Tools, Lean Engineering, Value Engineering, 5S and Red Bin Analysis, etc. You come back to your plant and are given responsibility to implement your newly learnt skills within a crucial zone in the premises. You measure the outputs in coming weeks and, upon getting desired results, you then horizontally deploy the methods across the divisions in the plant. You’ll not stop just here. The training and HR head of your company will now invite you to take sessions internally to impart your skills in others. How many apparel factories are following such practices? You can count the numbers on your fingers!”

What this professional points out is true and post-pandemic is the right time for the factories to understand the significance of identifying skill gaps in their workforce in order to bridge those gaps and see the change. Another strong reason to manage the skill gaps is the rising use of automated solutions in the apparel industry which is certainly eating the jobs of many operators and upgrading their skills is the only way forward so that they can be deployed to do some value-added work in the factories instead of making them victims of automation.

Easier said than done…isn’t it? It is not an easy task for factories to follow this approach blindly and see success although the factories are working hard in this direction. MOTIF’s survey states that the main constant between 2018 and 2020 is overall dissatisfaction with training provided in companies. Only 34 per cent of respondents in this survey across all levels and functions say they are satisfied. This is comparable to 38 per cent in 2018.

For businesses, there remains a gap between the scale of the challenges they are facing and the investment they are placing in for creating positive outcomes. Budgets are not allowing for increased investment. Similar to 2018, only 25 per cent have seen an increased investment in the past years and only 33 per cent pre-COVID expected an increase. Some 43 per cent of the department heads and middle management executives surveyed said they are facing two main training constraints – budget and time. Continual learning is not being adequately funded and staff is busy with their work, with no time to spend on learning. However, junior and associate levels say their main dissatisfaction is the lack of or insufficient training (40 per cent).

During pandemic and the economic crisis, is it hard to invest in people and skills…therefore how can an apparel company stay, survive and at the same time innovate for the future specifically by investing in people and skills?

Speaking in a webinar – the Workforce of the Future – organised by Messe Frankfurt , Jill Coleman, Business Development Manager, Alvanon , emphasised on two types of training in an organisation – 1)Internal training where operators learn corporate culture and ethics; 2) Cross functional training. “Cross-functional trainings are the need of the hour,” mentioned Jill.

While, in the same webinar, Jenny Guarino, Chief Executive Officer, ISAIC – Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center , averred, “It’s miscalculation to say that spending more on people makes things more expensive…It’s actually re-allocation of your resources. These resources look like taking out waste from supply chain and re-allocating that waste to wages and developing career paths. We believe it’s not expensive at all as managing the skill gaps in your workforce can get you long-term business sustainability. Further, if we look at sustainability,the companies make decisions to invest in compliances, less carbon footprints, etc., but if the yare so reliant on exploiting the people that make your products, then they are not at all sustainable. So investing in people is aligned to generate more profits.”

Fashion institutes can play crucial roles in upgrading skills of the workforce…

The industry professionals of the future are prepared in the fashion institutes today. But, are they really prepared to take on the practical challenges that are bombarded on them once they join factories? Answering this, Sheng Lu, Associate Professor, Fashion & Apparel Studies, University of Delaware told in ‘The Workforce of the Future’ webinar, “The fashion industry is changing dramatically because of COVID-19 and one strategy in response to this change is we need to be innovative. And, who can innovate? It’s people. There are too many gaps in those skill sets. It’s not because the professionals in the fashion industry are not prepared, it’s because the industry has been changing very rapidly,” adding, “I call for more collaboration between industry and our educational institutes.”

National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), India has taken a leap forward with its innovative curriculum. NIFT has adopted a format of Majors, Deepening Specialisations, Minors and General Electives. Inter-disciplinary Minors provide individuated pathways that would permit students to acquire interdisciplinary skill sets and opt for a set of subjects that complement studies in one’s major or explore an unrelated area of intellectual interest.

General Electives have been offered to the students to help them enhance their personality and develop interests in specific areas like Personality Development, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, Professional Ethics, etc. The Craft Cluster Initiative has been integrated into the curriculum. Increased industry interaction for students through classroom projects, internships and part transaction in Industry Environment is the focus of the restructured curriculum in order to make students industry-oriented.

Being a leader in fashion technology subject, NIFT has also curated new and emerging technology subjects across disciplines that have integrated into the curriculum such as Artificial Intelligence; Internet of Things; Designing Ergonomic Environment; Advanced Apparel Manufacturing Management; Big Data and Business Analytics; Augmented Reality; Virtual Experience Design; Head Gear Design; CAD 3D & Contemporary Manufacturing; Smart Textiles; Active Sportswear; Bespoke Menswear; Wearable Technology; Shapewear & Seamless Garments on Computerised Knitting; Surface Embellishment: Digital Embroidery; Laser; 3D Printing and Design Strategy.

Players like Shimmy Technologies are revolutionising the way workers are taught new skills…

US-based Shimmy Technologies is a company dedicated to uplift the apparel industry – particularly women in the workforce who are deprived of many technical skill trainings – with its AI solutions and has taken a step ahead to support the sector with a new project ‘Shimmy Upskill’.

Shimmy is currently running pilot projects in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and USA and aims to find out the answers as to how a garment worker’s job can evolve with multifold automation taking place in the apparel industry.

With the tagline ‘Empowering garment workers through play’, the company’s objective is to create an accessible learning environment with the help of video games to upskill digitally illiterate garment workers as sewing automation changes production labour and requires less workers.

According to Sarah Krasley, CEO and Founder, Shimmy Technologies , the shopfloors in apparel manufacturing industry are dominated by the female workforce and the industry is facing intense pressure of reduced workforces and faster deliveries. “The pressure is going to increase in a post-COVID world and hence Shimmy’s endeavours in this direction are intensifying,” told Sarah.

Shimmy Upskill consists of a series of lessons that help operators become multi-skilled. The lessons help workers gain basic digital literacies and 3D model layout, cut planning and how garments are holistically constructed. Shimmy will soon launch a new series of lessons that go deeper into critical processes and repair and maintenance of machines.

The games are designed for rapid localisation into new languages, aided by artificial intelligence. The programme uses voice recognition and videos to guide workers through the training and this is something useful for those workers who hold limited literacy skills. “We have given language options in our video game and the workers, for example in Bangladesh, can select Bangla language to play the game with ease. This is also applicable for the workers working in Indonesia as they can select their official language to play the game and upskill themselves,” stated Kristin Zellner, Product Lead, Shimmy Technologies.

The image is taken from Shimmy Technologies’ 2019 White Paper and depicts the detail of the pilot projects run by the company in Bangladesh and Indonesia. The company is scaling up pilots in 2021 – with a target to reach thousands of workers by year end.

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