Changing the Terms in the War for Talent

People — or, more specifically, the lack of skilled and available labor — is the response I hear most from apparel executives these days when discussing the challenges they face. The sourcing manager of Carter’s recently put it this way: “We are in a war for talent.”

On the front end, retailers struggle to find and keep sales associates in the stores. You’ll read about it in this month’s annual Digital Store Report, because a crucial component of merging digital with the physical store is having well-trained sales associates, equipped with mobile digital devices, who can engage consumers and assist them with everything from finding an item at another location to accessing product detail information to recommending items to go with the products they’re making.

But the need for talent is hardly limited to the retail floor. A lack of available and skilled employees is a challenge across the entire apparel supply chain.

And while it’s true that technology has automated many tasks and processes, it’s not true that technology has eliminated the need for humans. If anything, technology has removed many of the tasks that were not well suited to humans — everything from recognizing patterns across billions of points of data (AI) to picking product and moving it across a warehouse (robotics) — and freed them up to engage in activities that take better advantage of skills that humans have and robots don’t. Humans are desperately need at every point along the apparel supply chain, from design to production to retail.

One of the problems is that many of the jobs that are better suited to humans increasingly require people to have better and more targeted technological skills, and the gap between the skills that people have and the skills they need is growing larger by the day.

That skills gap was the topic of a recent Apparel webinar entitled, “Made in USA: An Industry Talent & Skills Gap Assessment,” during which industry veteran Ed Gribbin discussed the reshoring of manufacturing to the United States and the results of a survey conducted by Alvanon revealing the lack of skilled employees available to handle it.

Since 2009, when apparel jobs leaving the country bottomed out, and only 2.2 percent of apparel sold in the United States was made here, some manufacturing has returned. Today, 3 percent of apparel sold here was also made here, and while that might not sound like a big jump, that .8 percent represents billions of dollars of additional Made-in-the-USA goods.

Significantly, Gribbin notes that not only is apparel manufacturing up, but that the type of manufacturing is different. Previously, it was mostly work for the military under the Berry Amendment, and some small specialty made-to-measure business, but now it is mainstream apparel.

That’s an encouraging development, but that growth potential won’t be realized if there aren’t people to support it.

There are many contributors to the problem, including low unemployment. Fewer people are looking for jobs to begin with. There’s the hourly wage hike at Amazon, which is taking a toll. Black Tux recently opened a new warehouse facility in Pennsylvania but is struggling to staff it. “Amazon’s wage hike to $15 per hour is draining the employment pool,” COO Mike Klepfer says.

But there are two other big problems that the industry can and must address. One: a lack of training in schools and on the job in technological areas where the industry is moving, such as 3D design. In fact, 62 percent of the survey’s respondents said that they have difficulty filling certain positions due to a lack of skilled workforce. “That’s a disservice as we move into this world where virtual is trumping real, and where speed and relevance to the consumer [are intimately tied],” says Gribbin.

Two: image. We have an image problem. As WDA BrandMarketing Strategies’ Bill D’Arienzo recently stated, technology has created new types of jobs, but these are described in language that belies their modern and challenging character. “For [younger generations], this is tantamount to asking them to enter into the dreary confines of their fathers’ factories,” he says.

What if ‘factory’ had a different name? D’Arienzo asks. What if it did? And why shouldn’t it? Many of today’s mills and apparel manufacturers are humming with high-tech machinery, boast high-tech design and marketing departments and employ people with a wide range of advanced degrees. Let’s get the word out.

The apparel industry is an exciting place to be. Keeping it that way requires a two-pronged approach: dedication to training younger generations in the technologies of the virtual age, and commitment to transforming the way we think and talk about the opportunities it offers.

It doesn’t have to be a war if there’s plenty of talent to go around.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected]

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