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Comment: Apprenticeships have the power to transform fashion

Creative and technical skills are vital for a thriving UK fashion and textiles industry, but skills shortages and risks to the talent pipeline are among the most urgent challenges facing the sector, writes John West, director of skills and training at the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT).

Since it was appointed as the sector skills body for the fashion and textiles industry in 2017, UKFT has made rapid progress in addressing this critical skills gap. We have spent the last three years working with industry to overhaul apprenticeship training in England, in order to meet the needs of today’s economy and help businesses acquire the skills they need to succeed in the future.

This has involved working with employer groups to create a portfolio of training provision that underpins the most in-demand job roles, which can be applied to a wide range of career pathways – from pattern cutter to fashion studio assistant, to footwear manufacturer to leather craftsperson.

We have also achieved a number of policy developments to give more businesses and individuals access to apprenticeships than ever before. This includes extending funding from 16 to 18-year-olds to people of all ages; halving the contribution that small business pay towards training (from 10% to 5%); and introducing independent end point testing.

We worked with individual designers, and major retailers and brands, such as Burberry, Mulberry and Asos, to develop the various fashion apprenticeship standards. This was to ensure that the criteria met the skills, knowledge and behaviours required by small and large employers, across all sectors, from clothing to textiles, leather and footwear.

This has resulted in the fit-for-purpose, employer-led apprenticeship programme that we have today, which caters to existing and new entrants alike.

The benefits are clear. As well as gaining an apprenticeship and hands-on training, which will help to progress their career, apprentices have the added advantage of earning while they learn – unlike those who go to university, for example.

Meanwhile, companies of all shapes, sizes and, indeed, sectors, can benefit from taking on an apprentice. They are able train someone in their own workplace – giving the individual full insight into the way the business is run and the company culture. It also allows employers to tailor apprentices’ training according to their own business needs, and focus on developing the talent and skills that will help them take their business forward.

Apprentices bring a new pair of eyes to businesses and a fresh mentality. Their ideas can often prove incredibly valuable – not least in helping to address the pressing issue of the “ageing” workforce, which is one of the key stumbling blocks to the continued growth of the UK fashion and textile manufacturing sector.

In many companies, the average age of the workforce is 50-plus and key roles are often filled by staff with decades of experience. Taking on an apprentice helps companies to futureproof their workforce.

Finally, a very high rate of apprentices stay on at the company where they trained after completing the programme. This saves employers time, energy and cost in training an external candidate from scratch. They are also fully aware of the apprentice’s skills, strengths and weaknesses, and know that he/she is fitting with the team, company and its culture. 

Talent can be nurtured in many ways, and apprenticeships are incredibly valuable for both apprentices and employers.


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