Digital Skills Shortage Weighs on European Textiles Sector

Updated: Jul 7

By Just Style

This article was published in Just Style June 9, 2021. It explains that clothing and textile firms in Europe are struggling to find workers with skills to implement new production technologies.


New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain promise to make the clothing and textiles industry more productive and efficient.


But European textile leaders say they are struggling to hire young workers with the skills to implement new production technologies because they face stiff competition from other manufacturing sectors, such as the car industry.


Companies are increasingly worried that they will soon be short of people qualified to run their machines and factories, says Dirk Vantyghem, director general of the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex), which represents European manufacturers. Vantyghem identifies three broad and overlapping categories of skills that are in demand: “Production-related skills still come first, followed by digital skills and then in the third place, green skills.”


Production skills cover critical tasks such as operating machinery and managing supply chains; while digital skills refer to proficiency in advanced technologies, such as AI and blockchain – of increasing importance as the industry becomes more high-tech.

Green skills mean understanding how products and processes can be redesigned to lessen their environmental impact – by reducing water use, for example, or by designing more recyclable fabrics. Technological innovation pulls the three categories together.


“We used to have a lady that was sewing the shirt,” says Vantyghem. “Now it’s less manual and more and more computerised. Textile machines are becoming more and more sophisticated, we have more and more AI being introduced. You’re not weaving anymore like you used to do, but you’re managing fairly sophisticated machines.”

Firms also need people able to work with virtual samples on a computer screen ahead of a production run.


Image Problem

Demographics compound the skills gap. According to a recent industry survey commissioned by Euratex, just over one-third of the European clothing and textiles workforce is aged over 50.


That is about average in comparison to the European population as a whole, but it is much larger than the share of over-50s among the working-age population, according to EU statistical agency Eurostat.


Vantyghem says the industry has an image problem that makes hiring youngsters more difficult. Young people are put off by the environmental impact of clothing and textiles, and by the shady human rights records of some of the countries’ clothes are often sourced from notably China which rubs-off even on firms producing in Europe.


That is one reason why clothing companies want to hire people with the skills to implement blockchain technology for supply chain management, he says.


Blockchain is best-known as the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies. But the permanent, transparent, tamper-proof record-keeping it provides can be used to keep track of products and their components as they move along supply chains from one company to another.


That level of oversight is particularly important to address ethical concerns in the industry.


“There is a link with due diligence: is your shirt coming from Xinjiang in China, or does it come from Egypt?” Human rights groups say that as many as one in five cotton products sold worldwide are connected to Uighur forced labour in Xinjiang.


Investment

Another hiring challenge is money. Companies in many different industries compete for these advanced manufacturing skills, but European textiles firms are fairly small.


While one may at first think of major high-street brands, “that’s not European textiles. European textiles is 160,000 small businesses, often supplying to those brands,” Vantyghem says.


“The typical profile is a small, family-run company with obviously fairly limited financial resources.” That makes it hard for them to compete with automotive and energy companies with deeper pockets to pay bigger salaries.


One of the most important questions arising from the skills shortage is how much of the responsibility for addressing it should be borne by the companies who need the skills, and what employers should reasonably be able to expect from the education system.


“It’s a shared responsibility,” says Vantyghem. “The education system needs to catch up, to make sure that these new types of skills are available, are offered through the technical schools. We need to develop, quite urgently, new curricula.”


At the same time, industry “should take up our part of the responsibility, it’s in our interests.”


Vantyghem told just-style it is obvious that industry and education need to collaborate perhaps at a regional level so that education programmes can match the specialities of local businesses.


But “the question would be how all this would be organised and how it would be funded,” he explains. “The interesting question is who will get the bill?”


A new study released earlier this year called for a rethink of fashion education to ensure students are equipped with the data science and data analysis skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing industry.


Click on the following links for GlobalData Thematic Research reports on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sport and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Consumer Goods.

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