Mind the gap

28 February 2019

At the invitation of the European Leather Association, Leather International was in Brussels at the start of February to witness the results of an EU project into the digitalisation of the TCLF sector. The takeaway message was there is an emerging appetite for digital roles within the workforce, but more training is required to fill the skills gap.

We live in an age in which digital literacy is seen as not only a virtue, but a necessity – for individuals and industries alike. As such, organisations often like to overstate their digital credentials in the hope of coming across as modern and state-of-the-art. Yet there is an evident chasm in the European workforce in this area – primarily between millennials and older generations.

This was highlighted in a recent address given by president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, which highlighted that 44% of Europeans still lack digital skills. With the continent’s workforce set to get even older, there is a pressing need for this skills gap to be addressed.

Europe’s textile, clothing, leather and footwear (TCLF) sectors are not immune to this trend, Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, secretary general of Cotance (European Leather Association), told delegates at the final conference of the Digital TCLF 2025 Erasmus+ Project.

“The digital skills gap is a big issue,” said Gonzalez-Quijano, at the event held in Brussels on 8 February. “We have weak appeal to attract young people into our sector, as well as a lack of funding. We can’t train the people of tomorrow if we have the schools of yesterday.”

The Digital TCLF 2025 Erasmus+ Project

With a consortium comprised of Cotance, TCLF trade union IndustriALL-Europe, European Confederation of the Footwear Sector, European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex), and SPIN 360 – an Italy-based sustainability consultancy – the aim of the project is to identify the skills needed to embrace digitalisation in industrial production, while increasing competitiveness between European companies.

In the opening session of the morning, Lutz Walter, Euratex’s director of innovation and skills, listed a number of areas within the TCLF sector that have been impacted by digitalisation, including traditional sales channels, design and manufacturing processes, and overall working methods and workplaces.

“You cannot digitise your business without digital skills,” said Walter in his opening remarks of the morning, in front of a gathering of buyers, brands, trade unions and members of the press.

“The objective of the digital TCLF project [which began in December 2016] has been to identify jobs and occupations most impacted by digitalisation; understand digital skills gaps in the TCLF sectors; respond to the current and anticipate future skills needs; and bring all stakeholders together and develop joint action plans.”

The project has identified nine emerging digital occupations within the TCLF sectors. They are supply chain data manager; product trend manager; life-cycle manager; process analyst; leather technologist; finishing technician; digital marketing professional; research, development and information researcher; and 3D footwear designer and pattern maker.

The first European sectoral council on education, training and employment was launched in Brussels on 6 December.

Of those nine occupations, leather technologist was of obvious interest to Leather International. As described by Spin360 CEO Federico Brugnoli – who presented the results – the leather technologist manages the technical aspects of a tannery’s production department, “analysing, forecasting, planning, scheduling, managing and controlling the production process”. The digital skills checklist for the role includes ICT innovating, computer-aided process planning, big-data management, cloud computing, and informatic system architecture.

The year of a final conference associated with the Cotance General Assembly, which will present the results of the Social Dialogue project.

“If you interact with a digital machine, you need to have digital competence – even on the shop floor,” said Brugnoli in reference to the emerging role, which was in the highest demand from leather companies surveyed for the project – followed by product manager and finishing technician.

Next-gen education and training

While the TCLF education system in Europe was identified as being in “good health”, Gonzalez-Quijano said the project – which surveyed 47 educational and training entities across 12 countries – had also shed light on areas with room for improvement. In addition to the aforementioned lack of appeal to younger students and restricted funding, current shortcomings include “difficulty finding qualified trainers, training still being seen as a cost rather than an investment, marketing difficulties, and a general lack of connection among peers and subsectors”.

Nonetheless, the results of the survey showed that the TCLF education and training system widely supports the nine emerging digital occupations listed above – with “strong support” for leather technologists, finishing technicians and research, development and information researchers.

According to in-depth interviews carried out with training providers from the leather sectors, there is clear willingness to develop new hybrid courses linking leather knowledge to the finished product, as well as connecting some courses with “more appealing” training within the fashion industry – such as curricula around accessories and how other materials interact with leather.

In view of the evidence presented at the conference, it would appear that industry educational and training institutions are gravitating increasingly towards the idea of industry 4.0 – or should that be university 4.0 – but there is still some way to go for the European TCLF sector.

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