WESTMINSTER FORUM: Sector skills, competitive advantage and emerging British talent

I was invited by the Westminster Forum Projects to talk about Prospects for the British fashion industry ‐ domestic manufacturing, skills and wearable technology.

Thank you very much everybody.

I’m going to talk about the pivotal role that, I believe, higher education institutions need to play, both in the development of skills in UK manufacturing but also the positioning and the contribution that the creative industries make to the UK economy.

Obviously this session we are looking at sector skills, competitive advantage and emerging British talent. I believe that without positioning art and design schools and institutions at the centre of that, then in a way, we’re not going to have a competitive advantage and we’re not going to be keeping ourselves at the forefront of the skills that are required for a twenty-first century global economy.

Many of you may know the London College of Fashion. We’ve been established for over a hundred years, and do absolutely everything to do with fashion. We have 5,500 students, grouped into design and making, management and science and media and communications. So we are very privileged in being able to have a lot of niche provision in all of those areas.

The College was set up very much to be focused on the practical skills and technology that were needed in the fashion industry over a hundred years ago, and we’ve kept that as part of our DNA, so whether you’re a business student or whether you’re a fashion journalist, skills and technology are as important as if you’re studying footwear design. I think that this is one of the things we need to make sure we really keep at the forefront of education. Many of you will know that Prince Albert set up the art schools; 150 years ago, to make sure that the manufacturing industry understood the importance of design and kept at the forefront of thinking in those areas. I think perhaps that that’s what we need to re-engage with. At the College, we have great partnerships and collaborations with a range of industry partners, and the important aspect for the great art schools that we have been referring to, whether they are north south, east of west, is to make sure that they’re connected with some of the significant other aspects of manufacturing such as digital technology, with rapid prototyping etc. There isn’t an aspect of manufacturing that isn’t hooked in some way to some of the latest technology developments and I believe passionately that higher education institutions can provide the test bed, the catalyst, the thinking, that in a way the manufacturers can’t do, but we need to do that in partnership.

These are some of the things that as a college we’ve been working on. Wendy Malem was referring earlier to the Designer Manufacturer Innovation Support Centre which is part of the college, so we’re there to help broker the relationships between manufacturers and designers and help both gain better understanding of design for manufacturers, but also manufacturing for designers. We also have the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, which works with industry partners on all the things that have been touched on this morning around, the ethics and corporate social responsibility, to help support young businesses in developing those skills and those aspects of the industry and also putting that back into the curriculum.

We also have the Fashion Digital Studio which is looking at all the aspects around how we think about, use and develop technology. Such as; body scanning, 3D printing, virtual reality, and what impact these technologies are going to have on the future of manufacturing.
We also do other projects, for example our work with prisons as part of our Social Responsibility. Working with women’s prisons, we provide training and support, helping to develop skilled machinists. Because the point isn’t always made but, there is a shortage of such skills and you can earn £60 an hour if you’re a very highly skilled machinist in London.

And so this idea that we’re re-educating and re-thinking what the textile industry is like, what the fashion industry is like, what it’s going to be like way into the future, is the really critical role that, I think, higher education institutions can play, and need to be engaged with. And as I said earlier, we need to also make sure that we’re working with industry, other sector skills providers and organisations such as Walpole, UKFT and so on. We can’t do these things on our own, industry and other partners also have to recognise that higher education institutions do offer particular expertise. . If we’re going to have and keep the UK economy at the forefront of the creative industries then we must also remember that it is those art schools that are creating those thinkers, who are, in a way, going to reinvent what the industry is going to be like. Very often we’re told, why aren’t you producing ‘oven ready chickens’, actually that isn’t our business within higher education., We should be getting industry to rethink what that industry is like and that will help keep the UK economy right at the forefront of the manufacturing, both within the textiles industry and also within fashion.

Thank you.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
It’s interesting that Frances’s opening remarks about Albert creating the Royal College of Art, so the Great Exhibition of 1851, where we were the Empire and we were great, and the money that came from that Great Exhibition, they set up the Royal College of Art, the Imperial College of Science, the V&A, the Royal Albert Hall of Music, right, so Victoria and Albert knew that if you combined all these things together, science, art, creativity or whatever, that in that case the Empire would… now I’m not trying to re-Empire us, but to keep us ahead this is the same thing about the collaboration of science and art. And now we have Jenny Holloway who is Fashion Enter, who I’m not going to say anything more about because she used to work with me in Marks & Spencer’s and she’s brilliant. Thank you.

Sector skills, competitive advantage and emerging British talent
Questions and comments from the floor with Michelle Emmerson, Chief Executive Officer, Walpole British Luxury

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
So that’s brilliant. We have got about 15 minutes of questions and time for a pee. So have you got any questions or comments? Yes.

Kate Hills:
I’ve got a question for Frances, is what are design colleges doing these days to teach the students how to make clothes, because back in the days when I was a fashion student, god knows how long ago, the first thing we did was learnt how to make a quite complex garment on industrial sewing machines. Now I get designers contacting me all the time, I’m looking for a UK manufacturer, I’ve approached quite a few people and they’ve not got back to me, they don’t want to speak to me, they don’t want to make my products. And actually when you get to the root of the problem it appears that these designers don’t actually know how to have the conversation with a factory on how to make a product, they don’t know what a spec pack is, they’ve never been to a factory, they send an email rather than making a telephone call or actually going to visit, so they don’t know how to build up a relationship with the manufacturer. What are you doing to address that problem?

Professor Frances Corner:
Well I think there are two things I’ve got to say. One is that at London College of Fashion that’s not a problem we have encountered for our students and we have a very good reputation for the fact that all of our students know how to make. We have industrial sewing machines, we have equipment that other colleges aren’t so fortunate to have. Take footwear for example, there are three of these specialist manufacturing machines in the world, and we’ve got one of them. One of the problems is the question about how we invest in our art schools across the country. A lot of colleges and universities have started fashion courses because, on one level, you’re not going to have any problem recruiting students, and they tend to then really focus on developing the design aspect. So some of those students will be great designers but won’t necessarily know all of the aspects about how to make. Now, as we’ve been talking about, it’s very difficult to set up a college from scratch, able to do the sort of manufacturing needed and with an understanding of the manufacturing industry. That’s really difficult and it’s very expensive. It’s also a problem because there are also plenty of colleges and universities overseas that are doing that. There needs to be better investment in higher education, particularly the creative industries. It’s a big problem. There are several other things to also say, but one important point is that students and the public need to understand what it is to ‘make’. People tend to think that fashion is a two dimensional activity, but it’s not, it’s three dimensional. We also need to make sure that we’re clear about how and why we link up with other organisations that help support the development skills, because the other factor to add into this is that you go to university to also have an education, and as I mentioned earlier it’s not just about producing the ‘oven ready chicken’. It’s also the students understanding themselves that they may have a skills gap themselves and maybe also need to think about working with other organisations to make up their shortfall. We have to be clear about what we are offering and we have to also be clear about what we don’t do, because as education institutions we can’t do everything.

Kate O’Connor:
Could I just come in there because I think if you’re the London College of Fashion or Goldsmiths or Central St Martin’s, if you’ve got that deep history and tradition and reputation and you’re absolutely innovative and brilliant and do all the other things apart from produce oven ready chickens, then it’s nice and clear and there’s a whole heap of issues that you’re dealing with in terms of funding and so on, but it’s pretty clear. But if you’re one of the other hundreds of courses and universities, offering fashion design degrees that have sprung up over the last decade, it’s not that clear. And so we have gone there, controversially sometimes, not on a popular level, we’ve gone there with an industry accreditation to say: anyone that is offering a degree with a skillset brand against it, it is including making skills, is including understanding the manufacturing process, is including business skills and entrepreneurial skills because that’s the other fantastically absent bit of courses and that brand says to the student who’s now investing a minimum of £30,000, this is a course that’s industry accredited. And actually we would do a call out to those colleges and art schools who’ve already got that reputation and don’t need to perhaps partake in that programme to really get behind it because it’s for the students and the industry that we need that. And you’re absolutely spot on and we are absolutely going there with our Creative Skillset accreditation.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Another question, at the back there? Or in the middle, on the right.

Ron Smart:
From R A Smart, we’re based in Macclesfield in Cheshire.
There’ll be a small speech Mr Chairman, I’m sorry about that. I’ll encroach on your pee time. But I just want people to understand who we are and what we do. We are screen printers, we are digital printers and we’re weavers who work in the sectors of ladies fashion, we work in the sector of men’s neckwear and we’re working in interiors fabrics and now household textiles. In the last 15 months we opened a sewing room in Macclesfield to start supplying people with end product. We’re already doing it on ties, we’re doing it now on scarves and we’re starting to do it on household textiles and this is of interest I think… this is the only manufacturer in the place. We’ve now reached the dizzy heights of 19 people we’ve recruited in the last 15 months, to work in our sewing room, two of those are on cutting, two are on finishing, the 15 are sewing machinists. When we advertised in Macclesfield, which is a sewing town, for sewing machinists, we didn’t get any applications at all, zero okay. So the ladies working in our sewing room are two only, the Polish ladies are sewing room supervisors who can sew, and one of the ladies, a mature lady, who was made redundant. All the others we are teaching to sew okay. We have accepted the fact that we will not find sewing machinists readily because there must be at least two or three generations of missed sewing machinists. We stopped recruiting sewing machinists 40 years ago. So we now have the problem of recruiting them. And when I listened to all the talks this morning I keep coming back to the simple question, if we’re going to bring manufacturing back to the UK, we will need sewing machinists, it’s inevitable. We can sell fabric, but they go abroad to make up. If we want to make up we need sewing machinists. Now the question I was going to ask you, our target is to get 50 people, we’re doing household now, we’re doing accessories next, but we are teaching people to sew on household because it’s easy. I can’t teach people to sew a silk dress from day one; they have to learn to sew the easier stuff first. Our target is 50 people okay, 50 sewers and I really think that is going to be my biggest problem and Jenny, would you agree I’ll have a real problem finding sewing machinists. We have an apprenticeship scheme now with Macclesfield College and we have seven apprentices and I think that will be the source of our sewing machinists. Sorry to have taken so long, Chairman.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Thank you.

Jenny Holloway:
You are right, there is a problem to recruit skilled machinists, but I think what you’re doing is spot on, but why not open your own stitching academy? You’ve got everything there to do that. I mean if you want to come along to our factory, on our mezzanine floor we’ve got about 15 machines and we actually helped write a qualification Creative Skillset and ABC Awards and it’s a Level 1, it’s a six weeks course and it’s just that taster and we’re completely packed with it. You know we have a constant demand for it, which is why we’re opening up the Fashion Technology Academy. But I think it’s fantastic what you’re doing and I think the aspirations you have there for 50 are achievable. I think where you may struggle is that there is more in north London and actually I live in Kent so it’s a hellish journey, is because that’s where the immigrants that have come in are domiciled. You know there are clusters of these people that are there. So there must be embassy information that would be able to tell you if anyone’s in that local area or I can speak to our workforce and find out as well for you. So I’m happy to help and engage where I can. But well done.

Ron Smart:
All our ladies are… apart from the supervisor, the Polish lady, are English.

Jenny Holloway:
Oh that’s great.

Ron Smart:
We don’t have the problems that you seem to be having and our apprentices now, we do a one year course, a one day release in college and we obviously pay them and then we’ve got an NVQ 2 at the end of the year and a BTEC, but they’re not just doing sewing they’re also doing English and Maths, so we have a number of young people in Macclesfield between the age of 24… 18 and 24, that have never worked, they’ve never had a job and this is my intention, it’s a crusade, we’re going to employ those people and we’re going to give them a CV after one year that means if they don’t stay with us, at least they have a CV, they can go to somebody and say, I’ve worked for a year, and here are my qualifications.

Professor Frances Corner:
Again, I think that’s a fantastic initiative and we know from work we’ve done in the College and the work that we do with the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, that we need at least 150 skilled machinists in London, simply to keep up with the demand. And so the sorts of initiatives that Jenny’s started, that you’re talking about Ron, and the prison project I mentioned earlier, will help us to fill that skills gap. Again, I think it’s this whole question about the media; the joke was made earlier when Kate was talking about a reality TV show, I think that the role the media plays is really important because if youngsters understood that you could have an amazing career as a pattern cutter, as a skilled machinist… I mean in the end somebody’s got to make the really wonderful gowns or tailored suit and so on and so forth. So there is a really exciting, practical skilled future. So I think that absolutely, it’s a fantastic initiative and I wish that other people would do the same thing.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Yes.

Bill Macbeth:
You know it is something that we’re seeing a lot of. We had a company talk to us last week saying we need 15 sewing machinists now, we haven’t got time to train anyone, can you get us 15 sewing machinists. Companies in the north-east have said, we have a company that wants to bring part of its brand back to the UK so it can make it in the UK, because made in the UK is now a great thing and we want to get onto that bandwagon and so do they. But they need 150 sewing machinists before they’ll consider doing it. And I think some of the work that’s been done through the Alliance Project, which I set at a European level, is the best thing that’s happened to our sector for yonks because it’s so easy for companies to access the money and so quick. But there are examples there of potential repatriation of work, re-shoring work, where the companies are really putting it on hold until they’re convinced a skilled workforce is there. Now how do you get people into the industry? How do you make it attractive? One thing is wages. We’ve also got to get the schools to understand that there are good quality jobs there, with good quality companies and that means getting out there and selling it.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Thank you. Yes.

Maria Malone:
I’m from Manchester Metropolitan University and I’ve done quite a lot of research into this, looking at the barriers between supply and retail and why suppliers don’t want to engage with retailers, because believe it or not that happens because of the expense of that. And also the other way round, why retailers are saying they haven’t got the quality levels, they haven’t got the skills etc. But we are trialling or I’m particularly trialling a notion of bringing headmistresses and headmasters into the university to try and we’re actually piloting it this term, we’re looking at bringing Year 10 students at the end of Year 10, into the university to try and enthuse them into looking at fashion as a career, apart from the kind of degree level, at the manufacturing level. Kind of jumping on this great British sewing bee mentality and trying to enthuse them about product, because we believe that if we can get them really to love product and how it’s put together, that will entice them to want to develop the very skills that you need in your business. We’ve spent far too much time looking at you know degrees in fashion and we’re very, very good at that, so there’s no point in having those careers if we haven’t got the manufacturing there as well. So that’s something that we’re trialling and we hope to look at things like summer schools etc.

Professor Frances Corner:
I think this comes back to the conversation we were having earlier this morning before the coffee break, about how you engage with the clothes, because if you are going to encourage craft, encourage a love of making, and really valuing those aspects then, in many cases, you’re talking about a product that’s going to cost more, rightly so, because you want to have an appropriate wage and an appropriate respect for the materials that are being used. And I think this is the other factor that we have to also debate with consumers, that if you are the producer you’re also the consumer so you’ve also got to potentially also be prepared to spend more, to have a product that’s going to last.

Jenny Holloway:
Can I just also say that’s a great initiative that you’ve just been talking about with Manchester, but why not take it one step further, you’ve got a fantastic coat manufacturer in that area, called Cooper & Stollbrand, Mike is the MD, take them there as well, you know let them see manufacturing and it just closes the circle, that’s great.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Yes, that passion for the product you know which was rife in M&S when I was there, from the board upwards, you know where we were told what was the difference between Egyptian cotton and other cotton in terms of the long staple and then how you spin it and then how you can cut something on the bias and have a difference and all that sort of thing. And the love of looking at a product and seeing it and feeling it and understanding it, it was a passion and instead of just doing a job, you were actually creating something even if you… if it was just for M&S, but just for M&S as you know was that. And that passion then helps you to enjoy your work as well. So I entirely agree. Yes, yes and then we’ll come to the back. Yes.

Kate Hills:
It’s a question for Kate O’Connor actually and maybe Bill can help. I’m just thinking about the scalability of it, so you know the apprenticeship scheme we know quite well and I know you’ve worked really hard on the content of that. Hackney Community College which is near to CFE have just started delivering apprenticeships and they’ve got six you know and I know it’s relatively small numbers, so you know when we’re hearing about 150 needed in one factory, 150 in another, how is this going to scale up do you think so that it’s actually meeting the demand?

Kate O’Connor:
Yes I think that’s a really good question. And just on the back of the last question, one thing that is really fantastic and I love this idea of that we’re good at collaboration and partnership… because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, but I think we should hold onto the positive of collaboration. And sometimes we have a habit of saying, oh we need all graduates, or okay the pendulum is swinging now against degrees and we need to look at skills and we need to look at apprenticeships. So what we’re trying to do very hard and, I think, pretty successfully is make sure that people understand that all of these things are necessary, short courses for stitching, initiatives to reach out to schools and prepare people for more practical entry, as well as higher education. So apprenticeships, the scalability question is a huge one and I think that it goes back to the point I was making about smallish companies and growing companies, how do they engage with what might seem to be as a slightly bureaucratic setup of taking on someone, formally training them, getting involved in qualifications and accessing public funding and I firmly believe, if we’re going to address the scalability issue, then Creative Skillset has got to work with key providers, Bill and Jenny and others across the country, to really push that now, to really push that now so that we’re overtraining and over-hiring, so that we can support a growth industry. It’s through our training providers that we can try and get that sense of scale. Because if we leave it to small employers to try and engage with the system it’s just not going to work and it’s not going to work quickly enough.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Okay, we’ve got time for one more question, that’s two minutes and then we’ll have a five minute break and then we’ll come back to be here back at 11.55, thanks. Where was that question? Back there, yes.

Janice Wang-Millard:
From Alvanon. One of the questions that I had was really about what we can do actually with the brands as well, because actually there’s a training gap inside the brands. My company works with most of the big brands in apparel and we get asked actually whether we can help train some of their junior buyers and their merchandisers in some of the skills that they are lacking. And I think the scalability thing would actually be solved by Creative Skillset and also some of the other training authorities that are out there that can actually help people who are already in industry. I wonder if

Kate O’Connor:
Definitely. I mean I’m sure colleagues on the panel will want to come in here, but definitely I think that’s another huge issue about the training within the industry and involving all partners in that. If that doesn’t sound too vague. I think we’ve got examples of where we’re putting those kind of partnerships together so that there are those great developments in company training at all sorts of levels. Jenny … yes.

Jenny Holloway:
I think that is happening though. We’ve got 50 apprenticeships going through now on Level 3 and we’ve got about 12 on Level 4 and for example Marks & Spencer have got nine and they’re in garment technology. But their involvement in that programme is actually quite amazing. But what it does is the information and resources they’re providing will flow down to the owner, maker, so we’ve got people who’ve got literally one apprentice as the owner, maker, and then it scales up to Marks & Spencer’s. So it’s beginning to happen organically but it could certainly have a nice little bit of a push along as well. That’s a good point.

Professor Frances Corner:
I think the other thing to add, obviously I referred to buyers and so on, and the point that John was making earlier, which is the sort of rapid change that we’re encountering all of the time in all aspects of the industry and that’s not going to change and you can’t expect to be able to keep up with some of the skills and the developments that are going on in all aspects of the industry, whether you’re a journalist, a photographer. Whatever area you think about, it’s so fast changing and of course fashion helps to drive that very change in and of itself. And that’s where, whatever level of the industry that you’re involved with, you need to be aware that training and upskilling is really important and recognise that different experts can offer different aspects of that.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
And as this has been a great play, the last comment from Macbeth.

Bill Macbeth:
Thank you very much. Can I just say, scale and apprenticeships is important from the provider side as well. If you’ve got 30 people coming to see you regularly in one room it’s affordable. If you’ve got 25 people scattered over 25 companies, around a region, it gets very difficult. You also have to meet all the Ofsted rules that you would if you were training kids in schools and that can be difficult and challenging in an industry environment. The final word is really that the Government is now working to simplify apprenticeships again through a recent review, so god help us.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Can I just ask, is Les Wassermann here or?

Peter van Gelder:
Yes he is. Chairman, all these people really want to leave, we prefer to carry on but it depends.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Do we need a break? Yes. Go on then. But people stay if you don’t need to; right and we’ll just give it two minutes. I thought we were going to have to Google Glass.

Peter van Gelder:
We do, he’s here.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Okay good, good. Okay, thank you very much panel.

Kate O’Connor:
Thank you.

Lord Stone of Blackheath:
Highly disciplined as an audience, thank you very much. So now we have got Lasse Wassermann, Senior Programme Manager from Google who is going to give us a talk for 15 minutes, well 10 minutes and then 5 minutes questions, but also I would like to join me here now, the three people who are going to then talk about wearable technology, which is Mariel Brown, Simon Bennett and I’ve already got Amy here. Thanks. And now I feel that I’m lost again. I was comfortable before but now we are in to high tech, and so I’m going to ask them how to work my iPhone, right, but in the meantime Lasse, thank you.

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