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When Sewn Products Meet Silicon Valley

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

By SPESA & Shimmy Technologies

Question: What does a Silicon Valley-based innovation competition have to do with the U.S. sewn product industry's talent shortages?

Answer: Everything

The XPrize is legendary across Silicon Valley. It’s a prestigious prize of millions of dollars given to teams of entrepreneurs and academics if they solve a moonshot, or audacious problem, in a ridiculously short period of time. Past XPrizes awarded scientists who proposed antidotes to alleviate global hunger or AIDS. Interestingly, if you talk with XPrize winners, you learn that it’s rarely the millions of dollars at the finish line that’s the motivation for the entrepreneurs who go after it. It’s really the intoxicating rush involved in cracking a really hard problem and making a difference to the industry and humanity.

True to form, this year’s XPrize is a moonshot problem: how to help the 12.6 million Americans who are unemployed due to COVID-19 by incenting innovators to come up with a new way to rapidly reskill homebound Americans in 90 days or less so they can gain new employment. More than 100 teams from around the world submitted ideas to the XPrize judging panel in December. Not surprisingly, many of the teams wanted to train software engineers, social media analysts, and data scientists through webinars and code-alongs on Chromebook laptops.

Our industry is no stranger to workforce development challenges. On any given day, we have a surplus of open production jobs without workers to fill them. We struggle with the stigma that garment factories are dingy, dirty, and dangerous and that taking a job as a software engineer or ecommerce associate offers a more stable career path with flexibility and free organic food for lunch. We stumble sometimes on the employment onramp and put training resources into new workers who don’t make it through to the production floor due to commute times, family or financial responsibilities, or lack of confidence that they will succeed in a totally new industry.

On the other hand, our industry also can push and pull and twist production plans to achieve moonshot margins that would be the envy of any other manufacturing subsegment. We’re a tight-knit community and the ones who will stay in business for the long haul readily share information with one another because they know we all go faster when we innovate together.

Never one to shy away from a hard problem, we wondered: could the XPrize seed funding and 30-month pilot structure be a great vehicle to move forward with our industry’s wish to train and excite more workers? Could this open up an opportunity to build a new generation of machine technicians alongside the other jobs needed to bolster the reshoring underway? Could a nimble team cook up a standard way of training people for a national implementation? Could we restore faith that a job in our industry can bring a reliable paycheck, opportunities for advancement, and meaningful work that benefits future generations and the planet? And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that those jobs support a shift to circular fashion.

With those goals in mind, SPESA joined a core team led by Shimmy Technologies, an Industry 4.0 company focused on the future of work in the apparel supply chain; the Urban Manufacturing Alliance; and the top-rated University of Southern California’s Games program out of USC’s School of Cinema. Shimmy has already had success utilizing artificial intelligence and video game mechanics to upskill sewing machine operators in Asia and the group felt they could build on those successes and apply the technology to a different problem in the U.S.: how to excite and train new workers to reskill and join our industry.

Taking a lean startup development approach, our team conducted design interviews with unemployed Americans, community college administrators, trainers, employers, technicians, hiring managers, and equipment companies. We dug into what is at the root of an employment journey and challenged our assumptions. We thought through an entirely new approach to recruitment and learned how games can help workers build confidence quickly, explore new concepts without shame or financial consequences, and why webinars, worksheets, and quizzes will simply not work in the new world in which we now live.

Under Armour, Henderson Sewing Machine Company, Gerber Technology, Carnegie Mellon Robotics, Skillprint, GigKloud, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), Manufacturing times Digital (MxD DMDII), Business for Social Responsibility, and Accelerating Circularity acted as our Advisory Council, offering sponsorship and support, and guided our team towards the strong first deliverables we submitted last month.

It’s clear that the production worker of today is not the production worker of yesterday, and the production worker of today will not be the worker of tomorrow. STEM skills, digital literacy, and augmented work with robotics will be as necessary as someone who can sew a seam under the estimated time at the perfect SPI. Just as a product development team can master a fit across a grade table that can delight an end consumer and make them feel on top of the world, we must also apply innovation and good design to the employment journey of new members of our industry.

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