The global garment industry is changing quickly and radically, with the worldwide recession exacerbating this change. Old jobs are disappearing and new ones emerging. But, as David Birnbaum points out, the new jobs are invariably on the supplier side and they not only require the right skills but also the right people.

If you are currently working on the customer side, your job may well be in jeopardy.

1: Companies are downsizing: In good times, three people can do the work of two. In difficult times, companies must cut overheads. As the market environment deteriorates, companies now expect two people to do the work of two, or even worse.

2: Companies are closing unprofitable divisions: In difficult times, senior management must make difficult decisions, possibly about your job. The result is where once three people did the work of two, now all three are unemployed as zero people are left to do zero work.

3: Companies are going bankrupt: Senior management, having failed to make serious decisions, are now unable to make any decisions at all, as they and everyone else are now unemployed.

4: Consolidation: Smaller companies are being bought out by larger companies with the result that your company has now been reduced to division level in which case you might well fall prey to either 1 or 2 above.

5: Off-shoring: Companies are moving many of their preproduction and sourcing operations overseas. Your job may move to Hong Kong, Singapore or even Switzerland sans vous.

6: Outsourcing: Companies are closing departments and giving the work to Li & Fung or other supply chain management specialists.

7: Sectorcide: Whole sectors such as private label importers are disappearing — killed off by retailers moving to factory direct.

All these jobs are disappearing at an increasing rate. In retrospect, the lucky people are those who were fired early. Many of those found new jobs.

Today headhunters are inundated with CVs from garment sourcing specialists and other professionals with 20+ years experience who, having previously earned salaries in excess of $400k, cannot find jobs paying $100k.

Many of these "highly experienced" people will never work again, not because they are lazy or incompetent, but rather because their job has disappeared, gone the way of the ostler, the flenzer, and the egg-candler.

Change brings opportunity
That was the bad news. There is good news.

The global garment industry is changing quickly and radically. The world-wide recession has exacerbated that change. New jobs are appearing.

However, the new jobs are on the supplier side. As factories move from product maker to service supplier, they need experienced and knowledgeable professionals. For the right people, with the right skills, they will pay the right salary.

Just as the retailers move to factory direct, so too are the factories moving towards retailer direct.

Many of the major suppliers recognise they need a home in the customers' home country. In this sense, the factories themselves are offshoring.

They are moving their merchandising and design assist departments away from China, Hong Kong, Korea to New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris.

Welcome to the resurrected supplier-owned private label importer sector. The factory needs you - provided you have the skills it wants.

The factory-owned private label importer (PLI) benefits everyone. 

• The customer benefits because the factory-owned PLI can provide better service, faster delivery and lower prices than the independent importer.

• The factory benefits because the PLI works on a wholesale basis therefore finally breaking the pattern of buyer/supplier FOB price negotiations.

• The local professional benefits because the factory cannot successfully operate a PLI without local professionals who have relationships with retailers and understand the market. 

Great career
Managing a factory-owned PLI is just one of great careers in the new global garment industry. The obvious questions which all US (and EU) readers want to ask are:

1: Where do I apply for the job?
2: How do I persuade them to hire me?

The answer to the first question is relatively easy. If you are a garment industry professional, you must know a fair number of factories, some of which must be large enough to support at least a small overseas design/marketing office.

Ask them. I can assure you, the factory will not tell your boss.

The answer to the second question is more complex. The problem here is cultural. The question is what does an employer look for in the applicant?

If the situation was reversed and the prospective employer was American, consider his priorities. He wants to hire the person best qualified for the job. He wants to know the following:

1: You are most qualified to run a PLI.
2: You are well connected to buyers.
3: You know the product and its price points.
4: Your salary demands are within budget.

Best suited to the company
Now assume the employer is East Asian. Here the situation is quite different.

The Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, or Hong Kong employer's employer is most concerned that you are the person best suited to work for his company. He wants to know the following:

1: You have good character.
2: You are serious.
3: You know the US (or EU) garment business.
4: You know how to run a PLI.

The East Asian employer cares most about you as a person — most particularly your character. He then wants to be assured that you have skills which he needs and values.

If you have good character, are serious about your work and have solid skills, you have value to the company completely apart from your ability to run a PLI.

If you are not seen to have good character and/or are not serious, you have no value at all even if you are a PLI genius.

There is a certain irony here. Many Americans believe Chinese and Koreans to be untrustworthy, while at the same time many Chinese and Koreans believe Americans to be untrustworthy.

In the past, it was the responsibility of Asian suppliers to convince their American buyers that they were trustworthy.

To reach this goal, Asian suppliers were forced to make a great effort to understand American character and culture.

Now that the situation is reversed, it is time for Americans to make the same great effort.

This article is an extract of a seminar given to graduate students at the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT] last month.

David Birnbaum is the author of The Birnbaum Report, a monthly newsletter for garment industry professionals. Each issue analyses in-depth US garment imports of four major products from 21 countries, as well as ancillary data such as currency fluctuations, China quota premiums and clearance rates.