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It’s do or die for British manufacturing

Jessica Brown

One size certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to British manufacturers.

One size certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to British manufacturers. That is what Drapers learned at the landmark meeting of UK fashion and textile manufacturers we held to discuss our SOS (Save Our Skills) campaign at UKFT’s head office in London last week. Attendees included mills, high street knitwear manufacturers, high-end womenswear samplers and footwear factories, and while they might have been diverse in their end product, their issues and needs shared common ground.

A lack of skilled workers is strangling growth opportunities. Meanwhile, exposés of backstreet sweatshops are damaging the reputation of genuine good-quality British factories, and other plants do not have the cash to invest in upgrading machines because of wafer-thin margins and tightly-controlled bank loans.

To survive and capitalise on opportunity, British manufacturing needs skilled workers, and young workers. Many machinists are now of pensioner age: the industry will die with them unless something radical is done. Is there an opportunity for specialist colleges, a bit like the Fashion Retail Academy set up by Sir Philip Green? Lord Alan Sugar seems to think so (p2), but this will likely require support and investment from industry as well as Government. There are also apprenticeship schemes springing up but, with a minimum requirement of 15 places, it is vital manufacturers group together to ensure these schemes can go ahead (go to www.skillset.org). Now is not the time to be precious about competition.

Look also at the idea of using prisoners as a workforce - not an obvious solution, but an inexpensive and interesting angle from a CSR point of view (www.worldskills.org).

Fundamentally, though, the industry must do something to PR itself as a great employer - the BBC may yet help us (p3). Young people are queuing up to be hairdressers and chefs since Jamie Oliver and co have taken over prime airtime, but the dramas that play out in the fictitious lingerie factory Underworld in Coronation Street don’t cut it. We need to play up the camaraderie, friendship and family feeling that characterises the factory floor. Contact us and grant us access to your floor to get the PR ball rolling.

With the best will in the world, graduates are not likely to want to work behind a Singer. The industry must educate universities not just about the skills they need, but also about how business works. Educators can pass that message on and train technologists instead of churning out thousands of designers who can’t find jobs. No public funding should be given to degree courses that can’t demonstrate the employability of their students at the end.

We should lobby Government for tax breaks or capital investment grants to help UK factories keep machinery advanced or open new plants.

We need a Kitemark or Tripadvisor-type system to rate our factories. One attendee said: “I know what my friend’s sister is doing from Facebook nowadays, yet I don’t know what the factory round the corner is doing.” What a brilliant idea.

And, finally, we should look to the Italians and create an official and enforceable ‘Made in Britain’ labelling system to protect our export market. It should not be enough to stitch a button on a shirt on our shores to win that coveted badge.

British manufacturing stands for quality, great design and impeccable execution. Our factories can also deliver goods super fast - something that is incredibly useful in today’s climate. But, to keep it this way, we need buy-in from everyone - manufacturers, trade bodies, Government and, yes even retailers.

Drapers will continue to lobby culture minister Ed Vaizey and work with UKFT to get the message across, but we need your voices to be heard. Email your issues, opportunities, ideas and support to jessica.brown@emap.com with SOS in the subject line. And enjoy our special issue on this subject.

Jessica Brown Editor

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