Extra-EU exports are up by 23% and have reached EUR50bn for the first time

Extra-EU exports are up by 23% and have reached EUR50bn for the first time

Recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce is the European textile and clothing sector's biggest challenge, according to speakers at the annual general assembly of Euratex, the European textile and clothing industry association. 

In a sense this is a positive problem, with the sector experiencing positive growth. Since 2012, turnover within the European Union (EU) has increased 10% to EUR178bn (US$201bn), extra-EU exports are up 23%, reaching EUR50bn for the first time, and labour productivity has risen 22%, says newly-elected Euratex president Alberto Paccanelli.

This means not only no more "relentless decline" suffered by the sector for decades, but also, when the industry's 1.7 million workers include 36% who are aged over 50, a significant replacement demand for the retiring workforce. "In other words, many of our companies put a big sign on their doors," he predicts. 

Industry will "have to hire well over 600,000 employees from now until 2030 to fill replacement demand and address new skill needs," and probably we need more, Paccanelli adds.

But the young, influenced by the industry's past history of massive closures since the 1970s, do not see textiles as very exciting. "How can we make this industry sexy again?" Emma Giner said at the meeting. A global HR director with her own Madrid-based company, she advocates brand story-telling, a new business model, reverse mentoring programmes (juniors help seniors), a less academic approach and "an authentic narrative" boosting brand images.

"Companies hiring today not only look for young people with the same skill sets as the retiring workforce, but also new talent with creative, highly technical and digital skills for high added value jobs in design, product development, technical textile production, digitalization, sustainability and circular economy" - Euratex president Alberto Paccanelli

Digital skills are also key, with Paccanelli adding these are essential in high added-value jobs. "Companies hiring today not only look for young people with the same skill sets as the retiring workforce, but also new talent with creative, highly technical and digital skills for high added value jobs in design, product development, technical textile production, digitalization, sustainability and circular economy."

Sector-specific solutions

In 2018, Euratex set up a skills working group and launched the Blueprint 'smart skills for the European textile, clothing, leather and footwear industries for 2030' project to deliver "sector-specific skills solutions."

Manuela Geleng, director for skills at the European Commission's DG (directorate-general) for employment, social affairs and inclusion, agrees a skills focus is key to attract the younger generation. Emphasising the need to keep up with technology and predicting "85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet," she says 54% of the existing workforce will need up/reskilling by 2022 – in all sectors including textiles.

To help, the EU's multi-annual framework budget for the next seven years will focus on skills. "Funding to Blueprint will continue," Geleng says, "but we need to look a little bit more at how to shift funding from initial to continuing as the balance is not right there."

On average, EU countries spend 4.6% of GDP on initial education, but only 0.1% on continuous life-long learning, which is ill adapted to today's changing work environment and skill needs, she says.

Lutz Walter, Euratex director for innovation and skills, told just-style that Europe's textile industry has to be fit for the next generation to develop successful companies.

For Walter, the best way to attract young and fresh talent to the sector is "modernised attractive professional schools and programmes using new industry-oriented teaching methods and tools; modernised recruitment and career development practices within companies including apprenticeships; and information and promotion campaigns at local and regional level led by industry associations and clusters supported by public programmes and schools."

Positive progress

The conference highlighted many positive examples. Sílvia Silveira, coordinator of planning, evaluation and certification at Modatex – the professional training centre of the textile, clothing and wool industry in Portugal – says some 67% of trainees completing its textile and clothing qualification go straight to the labour market.

Troyes, France-based knitwear company Bonneterie Chanteclair has reformed operations to become more attractive as an employer. It has abandoned "command and control management," CEO Thomas Delise explains, and its new recruitment/selection process uses communication messages on social media. The company also offers tailor-made training courses including reverse mentoring.

Paolo Bastianello, president of Sistema Moda Italia's education committee, says a communication plan is essential to improve the sector's image. Representing Italy's main production districts, the committee's aim of training and educating young people in all fashion professions is helped by a "memorandum of understanding to prepare people for the job" and a training needs survey.

"The fashion [design] function is less difficult to fill due to an abundance of graduates from design programmes, but the link of design to more technical aspects such as material, pattern-making and production knowledge is critical" - Lutz Walter, Euratex director for innovation and skills

Ralph Kamphöner, head of the Brussels office and foreign trade department of textile+mode – the confederation of the German textile and fashion industry – explained its Go Textile! project aims to convince young people "that don't have the faintest idea that their career could be in clothing" to enter the business.

This international campaign involving more than 150 companies and training centres features virtual and offline activities, for example trade fairs, to inform school and college leavers about company employment and university courses.

In Italy, the Como, Italy-based Project. comON "focuses on global sharing and the fostering of new design forms," says Marco Taiana, marketing manager at Tessitura Taiana Virgilio SpA, a high-quality fabric firm. 

Backed by local textile mills, universities and fashion schools, every year 20 talented designers arrive from all over Europe for an internship programme at Como companies, promoting dialogue between them and the industry.

In 2018, 61,000 people attended common events including talks, meetings, exhibitions and a 'creativity week' of design events. These initiatives involved schools, universities, designers, young artists, even Giorgio Armani, according to Taiana, who is also vice-president of Unindustria Como's textile sector group.

"comON shows we have certain competencies in one area of Europe, and we can use them in another," Euratex's Walter told delegates.

Technical turn-off

Turning to how innovation can help clothing brands get the design power they need, he told just-style at the event: "The fashion [design] function is less difficult to fill due to an abundance of graduates from design programmes, but the link of design to more technical aspects such as material, pattern-making and production knowledge is critical.

"Lack of availability of graduates from such technical studies is a serious impediment to the competitiveness of the industry," he made clear.

Indeed, Walter Erasmy, general manager of the Northwest Germany Textile and Clothing Association, says there are "hardly any industry-specific further training offers and practical problems to organise existing offers." Digitilisation is key to the success of the area's new vocational training college's training and teaching methods: "We don't have any books," he says.

Walter also says the use of digital technology and virtual collaboration "is a great way of linking design and material experts from across Europe/world into the design and product development processes of Europe's textile and fashion supply chains. This is unfortunately still very much underexploited by European companies, because digital skills and the use of web-based collaborative IT tools are lacking in companies."

Notwithstanding, he urged delegates: "We have wonderful stories and must not be afraid of telling them loud enough and in a modern and sexy way. Some companies don't even need to advertise, people queue outside their doors to work for them."