As the apparel industry wakes up to embracing digitalisation as a way of delivering on speed, customisation and transparency, it is also seeing a gap in the digital skills set of its workforce. Some tips the industry can take include collaborating with teaching staff on job expectations, sharing new technologies, and making them accessible to students.

As disruptive pressures from e-commerce, smaller order quantities and shorter lead times start to become the norm for the apparel industry and its supply chain, there has been an ever-increasing trend towards using 3D design and virtual prototyping tools in the product development cycle.

But with these new technologies comes a demand for a talented and modernised workforce that is able to manipulate the software and, not to mention, a call for those in academia who can actually teach the skills required to use it.

Collaboration

The key message from Michael Ernst, professor of textile product development and virtual product development at HS Niederrhein Mönchengladbach, University of Applied Sciences in Germany, is that there needs to be more collaboration between software companies and faculty staff and students in order to allow pupils to train directly on their technologies.

"The software should be available [to students] because [they] are the customers of tomorrow," he told delegates during a panel discussion at the PI Apparel (Product Innovation Apparel) event in Berlin.

Deborah Beard, associated chair of technical design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), agrees there needs to be more communication between industry and academia in exploring and making the transition to new technologies and innovations.

"The best way is to come to us, inform us what is happening out there. You have to keep us [updated]."

"The best way is to come to us, inform us what is happening out there. You have to keep us [updated]. It's breaking the ice – you getting involved with us, not just us getting involved with you," she explains.

Evridiki Papachristou, fashion engineer and research associate at the Technical University of Crete in Greece, offers a similar view. She explains that if vendors are able to communicate the job requirements for future designers and pattern makers to teaching staff they can then look at updating and reshaping the curricula to deliver the new and necessary skills for the "clients of tomorrow."

Meanwhile, the jobs themselves – or rather the lack of them – are another talking point, suggesting the deficit is not solely in the colleges but also in the wider industry.

Papachristou says she asked several 3D users in large global companies what particular job role would be responsible for handling new technologies in the future.

"I was surprised by the result," she adds. "The majority of the answers were no, it does not exist yet. Being a member of the educational staff, it really blew my mind. We have to do something about that."

Indeed, in the Netherlands, at the country's AMFI Amsterdam Fashion Institute, there was a recent discussion to end the teaching of 3D virtual technology altogether – which has been taught at the school since 2009 – because "there was nothing happening in [the] industry."

And it's a similar story in the US. Beard explains last year was the first year her students got job offers using 3D fit. "We have been teaching it [but the students] haven't had anywhere to go with it."

"It is very important [for industry] share your thoughts and let our students know where they can go; where they can find a position," adds Kuijpers. "Students [need] contact with industry so they know these changes are really happening."

Accessibility is another buzzword, with calls for software vendors – even those who do not have clients based in the footwear and apparel industry – to make their technologies available to students, as most university budgets are limited and mean it is impossible for them to buy the solutions.

"For us, it is very important to make the technology accessible," says Christiane Luible, head of fashion and technology at the University of the Arts Linz, Kunstuniversität Linz.

Papachristou concurs, adding the biggest obstacle for her is training, while Beard cites a "disconnect" between the learning aspect and the outside industry.

Another challenge is to get different technologies, software and platforms from different providers to at least run alongside each other.

For Beard, the answer has been to work in the cloud. "Ever since I went to the cloud, [the students] have no problem, they can [work] anywhere with the PLM."

And it pays to be prepared. Despite what she refers to as "good" IT backup at FIT, Beard says professors at the school do not take chances with the technology and go to class an hour early to make sure everything is working. "They don't feel comfortable just walking in and hoping the computers work – they sit there for an hour and play with it," she explains.

Student interest

Yet all of these steps are fruitless without the engagement of the students to which they are designed to help.

Of the 1,700 students in textile and clothing at HS Niederrhein Mönchengladbach, only four or five end up in Ernst's virtual lab – something he puts down to the fact that students lose interest when they realise that understanding how to use the technology is more difficult than it appears when they first see the 3D designs on screen.

"Where are the jobs? If they learn all of this and they go out to get a job and nobody is [hiring]...then what is the point?"

Plus "where are the jobs?" asks Beard. "If they learn all of this and they go out to get a job and nobody is [hiring]...then what is the point?"

At Linz, efforts have been made to strike the balance between digital and analogue.

The Austrian university introduced a new Fashion and Technology department in 2015 to ensure students study a wider range of skills, learning the "traditional methods" alongside the newer 3D technologies such as modelling and printing in so-called "double classes"; a development Lubile says has been "really interesting."

It's a move Papachristou is in favour of. "I believe students should be familiar with any technology that there is out there – so that when they get out into the industry they know how to cope with it. It is essential."

Meanwhile, AMFI's 3D programmes, such as its semester on virtual prototyping, are proving much more popular of late, and staff at Linz have developed a new way of teaching in a bid to stop students losing interest at the start of the course when it can be "complicated."

The university's decision to have students work on case studies – a digital blouse in the first semester for example – has been met with positive results. "They immediately see the result and the advantage," Lubile says. "And then they're curious...and interested to go deeper."

Kuijpers concurs: "You have to trigger them. With us, I've noticed that as soon as they are interested they just want to go for it. You also see that...[while some] love to work manually, they try [digital] because they see it is the future."

A professor deficit

While the panelists advocate working in partnership with tech vendors and engaging students by adapting traditional teaching, they also argue a key challenge in addressing the digital skills deficit in today's workforce is finding and appointing the most able academics with experience in using the newer technologies.

"Here [lies] the big problem because it's very difficult for us to find people who are trained on all of these simulation technologies," says Lubile, who explains teaching staff at Linz are trained by the university itself.

Ernst pinpoints another problem is that faculties are too interested in academic degrees, as opposed to the level of industry experience a candidate may have to offer. "We are only looking for the titles and not for the people," he explains.

"I look for at least 12-15 years of experience in current industry from our academic staff; otherwise I won't even hire them."

"[It's] a problem," agrees Beard. "I look for at least 12-15 years of experience in current industry otherwise I won't even hire them. Everyone comes to FIT because they want to be taught by people out in industry.

"First, it was bachelors, then it was masters and now it's PhDs – they're not industry people. Industry people have the knowledge, they're better than PhD; they have the actual working knowledge but academia is making it that it should be these titles that have nothing to do with reality."

And in Crete, Papachristou says there is a "huge gap" for academic staff. "We have many years of industry experience but that experience was ages ago so it's not updated [and is] not relevant anymore.

"In order to fill that gap we need to focus more on changing the educational system to learn more new technologies so we can see the new professors and academic staff coming out of it."