Closing the gap: recruitment issues in the leather industry

31 May 2018



An ageing workforce and widely publicised, controversial concerns over leather production means that many companies and institutions in the industry are suffering from a skills shortage. Technical experts and business leaders explain what they are doing to address the issue of recruitment.


The issue of recruitment and the urgency to replenish an ageing workforce in the leather industry has been a front-line topic for a long time, but a lack of consensus and cohesion has historically hamstrung progress. Leather’s reputation has also taken a heavy, steady toll from pressure groups, misinformed businesses and dubious science, which has enabled other materials to step into the breach. In recent years, however, there have been encouraging signs of progress for leather, which has been building momentum, especially across Europe and the US. Here, Leather International speaks with key people across the industry – from chemicals, tanneries, academia and industry associations – to find out what successes have been accomplished and what work still remains, in leather itself and beyond its own industry, to rebuilt its damaged reputation.

Smit & zoon

Maartje Dekkers, global HR manager: As a global player, we have the advantage of a global pool of talent. There are excellent educational institutes for leather technicians and chemists all over the world, and we really shouldn’t underestimate what these educational institutes mean for our industry. And as an industry, we should support them to enable them to provide their students with the best possible education. Smit & zoon actively collaborates and provides lectures and workshops with ICLT/Northampton University and institutes in Spain, Turkey, Brazil and India, for instance.

Egbert Dikkers, director of sustainability: The industry is changing, but so is the workforce. This new generation of employees has a different perspective on things and I expect they will be able to play a valuable role in making the leather industry fit for the future, which is closely related to becoming more sustainable. Millennials often have different interests and career goals. They want to work for organisations that are committed to values and ethics, and focus on corporate responsibility. Being a seventh-generation family business with a long-term focus in which sustainability is strongly embedded, this is certainly in our favour.

COTANCE

Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano,secretary-general: Tanners all over Europe complain of not finding the recruits they need. Brands are setting up their own training facilities in France or Italy, and footwear companies are developing apprenticeship schemes, as well. There is clearly unrest in the leather sector when it comes to facing the recruitment challenge.

Europe’s working population is ageing and its leather sector is no exception. This trend is highly concerning in particular in tanning where the image of the sector – although wrong – does not help businesses attract newcomers. In an overall shrinking labour market, employers compete for young recruits who tend to choose white-collar jobs rather than to work in industry.

We have been witnessing, in the past two decades, a dangerous erosion of the educational offering in the leather sector. Tanning schools in various countries have closed and even reputable institutions such as the Reutlingen tanners’ school in Germany could not survive the fall in alumni. When a sector starts losing its schools, it’s time to react by recreating critical mass.

The image of the leather industry, and education and training, rank high on the agenda of the sector’s European social partners, COTANCE and IndustriAll-Europe. In the past two decades, we have launched multiple projects and initiatives for addressing the issues, and pushed for political support and concrete solutions.

Specific to the tanning industry was the highly popular ‘Leather is my Job!’ project developed over two editions and ended in June 2017 with the conference in Igualada, Spain. This project has helped COTANCE members to develop numerous promotional activities and produce materials with a common branding that is thought to appeal to the younger generation and jobseekers. This project was also appreciated by tanners across Europe, and it was an initiative that partner sectors were interested in replicating for their sectors. However, it is difficult to quantify the result in terms of jobs created or improvement of the sector’s image. This was to be addressed in a different initiative.

Also, very soon we came to the conclusion that for succeeding in our efforts, we needed to team up with partner sectors and build up critical mass for getting heard and obtaining political attention in Europe. That is how we started an alliance with the textile and clothing sector first and we were later joined by the footwear sector.

We created the first EU Sector Skills Council in 2011, and developed intelligence on the situation of skills and jobs in our industries. Thanks to this, the textile, clothing, leather and footwear (TCLF) sector was one of the six industries that were selected to develop under ERASMUS+, a ‘blueprint’ for education and training awarded with €4 million.

Euratex, CEC and COTANCE brought together a partnership of more than 20 partners for developing a project called ‘Skills4Smart TCLF Industries 2030’ that is starting now and will last four years. The objectives are ambitious and will become more concrete for operators as the project unfolds, but we can already anticipate that there will be an image campaign, the development of a European Fashion Campus, the involvement of regional and local authorities for mobilising financial resources, and the setting up of an effective network of public and private stakeholders.

As a bridge between the EU TCLF Skills Council and the blueprint, another ERASMUS+ project has focussed on digital skills for the TCLF sectors. Today, nobody questions that we are living in an increasingly digitalised world. Digital skills are also highly relevant in traditional sectors, such as TCLF. This project has identified nine occupations in the TCLF and their respective digital skills. We are currently analysing the results of a survey, looking at the potential need for these new or upgraded occupations in the TCLF industries and COTANCE is launching another survey addressed to VET providers to identify to what extend the education and training offer meets the needs of the industry for digital skills. The results of the survey made it evident that companies and experts in the TCLF sector anticipate a clear demand for the nine digital occupations in the next five years.

Furthermore, the current absence of these occupations in a significant proportion of TCLF companies, combined with the five-year time span in which their demand is expected to take place, urges educational centres to develop the necessary curricula and training programmes that can help bridge the gap between company digital skills’ needs and qualified workers.

In this regard, the Digital TCLF 2025 project partners will analyse the current VET and training offer at European level and identify gaps in digital skills training required to meet the profile of the identified occupations. This research will be led by COTANCE. The results of this analysis will allow the partners to recommend changes to existing VET curricula, as well as propose the development of training programmes that can bring the necessary digital skills to the TCLF companies.

PrimeAsia

Sarah Swenson, chief sustainability officer: Marketing the positive side of the leather industry – such as what Leather Naturally is doing in their campaigns, for instance – not only helps end consumers learn more about their leather products and how to choose sustainable leather, but also encourages individuals to seek careers in the industry.

We also seek to support youth in discovering the benefits of working in the leather industry and, to this end, PrimeAsia China supports an internship programme with Shaan Xi University. Currently, there are 22 interns working there from March to August 2018; many of them chose to stay after their internship and become employed by PrimeAsia for a few years. There are currently two graduates of the internship programme working in technical positions. Since December 2017, a cooperation programme was also started with Si-Chuan University with six students enrolled at PrimeAsia China for internships.

Leather Industries of America (LIA)

John Wittenborn, president: Our major issues from the US perspective are threefold. Leather labelling for certain leather goods, including footwear, but not including auto upholstery, is governed by a set of regulations published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called the Leather Guides. The guides have been around a while and provide some useful information on practices that the FTC would consider to be deceptive to consumers, like describing a product as leather if it’s made from synthetic materials. Alternatively, if a product is made from leather and other materials, the nature of those other materials must be disclosed.

Though helpful, the Leather Guides are in need of improvement. The scope needs to be expanded and the regulations need a set of definitions. The word ‘leather’ is not defined. LIA will be working with the FTC when the guides come up for review next year. We hope to convince the FTC to adopt revisions that will make the guides more similar to the EU CEN standard. Second, LIA has recognised that the ageing workforce in US tanneries is a critical issue. We are assisting our members to recruit talent from abroad by providing advice and assistance dealing with US immigration laws. Unfortunately, that seems to becoming more difficult recently for political reasons.

We are also launching some new training programmes through the Leather Research Laboratory (LRL) at the University of Cincinnati. The LRL is a jewel of the US industry, providing testing, research and training services to the US and global leather industry. Starting in 2017, the LRL initiated some training programmes using tanning and finishing equipment maintained by the USDA in Philadelphia. The training consists of two separate courses for approximately 12 students each starting from raw hides through to wet-blue and then through crust. The courses have been well received.

However, these two short courses are not a substitute for more detailed and comprehensive training. The LRL is working with the University of Cincinnati to see whether we can develop cooperative programmes with other university training programmes, including the University of Northampton. As to recruitment, one of our members has developed a brochure intended for distribution at high schools and colleges, regarding the advantages of seeking a career in the leather industry.

Finally, we are continuing to address ongoing regulatory challenges facing the industry. This has been a core mission of LIA for more than four decades. While the major environmental regulations have been in place for a long time, the agencies continue to refine the rules and we are seeing new challenges regarding chemical regulation and water pollution.

Lanxess

Ilona Kawan, corporate communications: Lanxess India, a subsidiary of Lanxess, renewed its commitment towards quality education by fulfilling its promise of aiding Teach For India (TFI) in its quest to support fellows volunteering to educate underprivileged children in municipal schools. Lanxess India contributed approximately $78,000 to TFI, as part of its pledged five-year commitment to support the non-profit organisation’s efforts towards providing quality education to children. The company has also committed a sum of €75,000 a year for CSR projects in India for 2014–18. So far, Lanxess has supported more than 65 TFI fellows, who are trained teachers on a two-year full-time paid commitment, and around 2,000 students directly. This contribution works as a support for the fellows who volunteer to teach the kids at the municipal schools, since they generally give up their jobs to fulfil these social commitments.

Through its fellowship programme, TFI recruits qualified college graduates and working professionals to serve as fulltime teachers in low-income schools for two years. Fellows work to bridge the educational gaps that their students face, by using innovative methods in classroom. Regarding career ambitions, our claim is to set standards for a futureoriented personnel policy. We therefore place a focus on international career opportunities, on work and health as well as upon an attractive remuneration system, and innovative solutions for reconciling work and family life.

Stahl

Huub van Beijeren, CEO: In terms of external activities, we collaborate with technical and bachelor schools such as the University of Northampton and North Carolina State University, to train and inspire new generations. It means, among others, that we bring Stahl leather experts to schools, in order to present our company and career opportunities, taking advantage of agreements already in place between Stahl and universities.

We also open our centres of excellence for universities – professional practices, summer school – and have our own training institute, the Stahl Campus, which educates new joiners and future generations. In addition, we grant scholarships in chemical engineering and tannery to high-performance students and stimulate innovation through cooperation with universities, thus opening new communication channels.

To reinforce these structures, we enable our people to attend diplomas, masters or specific courses; for instance, the leather seller’s diploma at the University of Northampton, and promote company crosspollination of knowledge by stimulating cooperation among the subject matter experts and the students. We also support career path structures, showing the future for new joiners and new perspectives.

Scottish Leather Group

Callum MacInnes, HR manager: The Scottish Leather Group (SLG) is on a growth trajectory, having gone from 400 employees in 2008 to about 900 today. During the early period of growth, it was recognised that we did not have the skills for the future and that an industry image problem was hampering the newly formed HR

department’s recruitment drive. In 2012, the group decided to launch the SLG Apprenticeship Academy to attract and retain young future talent through a two-year apprenticeship programme of excellence that allows the company to ‘grow their own’ talent and engage with local schools, colleges and the wider community, thus raising the profile of the company as an ‘employer of choice’ that people wanted to join.

Through a combination of employment and training, the apprentice could gain a nationally recognised qualification upon completion, and the scheme is aimed at anyone above the age of 16. As an employer, we train our own people to meet the needs of our operations, so apprentices will contribute to the organisation’s productivity while developing their own skills.

Since 2012, SLG has taken on ten apprentices every other year and, interestingly, the drop-out rate has been negligible. The programme is massively oversubscribed, with most applications coming from school leavers. In addition, the group takes on five engineering apprentices each year. The Scottish Vocational Qualification, around which the SLG Academy is based, is open to all employees and, to date, 190 SVQs have been achieved at various levels.

Winning support and buy-in from existing employees ensured success, and the workforce embraced the idea and have been keen to impart its knowledge. In return, the youngsters were able to teach the existing workforce about digital matters. In year one, there is a full ‘end-to-end’ programme of manufacturing and leather production and, in year two, the programme covers more in-depth knowledge or specialism; for example, lab work, colour, finishing and continuous improvement. At the end of that programme, we have an individual who has done every job in every company in the group. This was the first time we had employees who had worked across all the companies, which meant they had a better understanding of the whole group. Historically, employees started with one company and rarely transferred.

This has given rise to a new type of employee who has grown up in the business and can see a career ahead of them, whatever their aspirations. Apprentices are among our most willing ambassadors. At least one qualified apprentice each year will go on to undertake further training, including at University of Northampton. We have two apprentices who completed their BSc in leather technology this year. The SLG Academy has transformed a skills shortage into a steady supply of welltrained employees who can realise a career in a modern local company in a traditional industry, giving a significant advantage over our competitors for talent.

Pittards

Debbie Burton, director of marketing: Pittards works with a series of initiatives designed to attract people to the leather industry to work and build a career. In addition to fixed-term paid internships that provide valuable work experience through universities, we have apprenticeship programmes in conjunction with local colleges to promote the opportunities with Pittards as a local employer, and a policy of employing specialist graduates straight from college in order to develop skills and responsibilities, including those from other industries with transferable skills that bring fresh insight and ability.

We also engage with industry groups such as UKLF and Leathersellers to promote careers and a close relationship with the University of Northampton, including participation in its industry engagement day that promotes all aspects of working in the industry. It’s important to offer clear progression and to empower those entering the industry with responsibility and inclusivity early, in order to inspire and retain them.

Leather Naturally

Mike Redwood, co-founder, Leather Naturally, and visiting professor, University of Northampton: The need for education is very high everywhere. The industry worldwide appears to be consolidating and strengthening, and its management structures are getting more professional. Its dedication to more efficient and modern manufacturing methods are also in tune with the quick deliveries that consumers are demanding. With the high attention to CSR from environmental issues to the way you manage people, demand to fill positions has enormously increased in the past few years. So the leather industry is in considerable need of managerial staff who are much better educated in business practices and technology than we’ve been used to. On the work floor, the need for properly trained apprentices and goodquality staff at that level has also increased.

Just saying that the only skilled jobs in the tannery are working the shaving and splitting machines – that’s history now. We need adaptable, flexible, multiskilled people all the way through and we have to look to build training at all levels.

The wider industry is short of skills in the sustainability sector as well. I think a lot of the people who look after sustainability in retail and other brands are very well trained, but many aren’t well trained in chemistry or leather technology. If you’re good at matters of sustainability, but aren’t technically or chemically able to interrogate the facts being put on the table in front of you, then you end up with the basic attitude that the leather industry is wasteful in its use of resources and you begin to accept false statements about tanning methods without having looked at them properly.

A lot of the arguments about chromium, for example, come as a result of people taking decisions about it on the basis of what others have written, rather than having looked at the chemistry and coming up with a more informed opinion. I don’t think it’s satisfactory that major decisions by top brands are taken or recommended by people who are not fully cognisant of the technical details. They can’t come in and argue with the best of us about whether chromium is good or bad, what leather’s carbon footprint is or how much water leather actually uses. I don’t accept the science behind the complaints that cows are bad for the environment and I think it’s based on a lot of false academic research with other motives in mind.

It’s a matter of not just education, but the right education. So wherever people come from in the leather industry, people need to know about leather chemistry – what’s in it and to understand it better

Many companies now run schemes to attract top young talent.
The leather industry is working towards further recruitment.


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