Route to jobs at the cutting edge

21st July 2000 at 01:00
The textile industry is struggling to shake off its poor image and find able recruits for its technical positions, writes Sue Jones.

THE grim factories of the Industrial Revolution with their ranks of oppressed workers have long gone, but the textile industry still has trouble shaking off the image, says Gary Hiley, director of training for the Confederation of British Wool Textiles. Successful manufacturers have gone high-tech, using computer-programmed machines in good working conditions, but recruitment is difficult.

When up to 1,000 jobs - many for machine operatives - can be lost in a week in the Nottingham area, "parents understandably do not encourage their children into the industry," says Sue Spencer, executive director of the standards setting body for the National Textile Training Group. Meanwhile, the local papers have plenty of jobs for textile technicians.

The Department of Trade and Industry believes that Britain produces world class designers and that our textiles and clothing industry can succeed by concentrating on value-added products rather than mass production, which these days can be done much more cheaply in the developing world. In June the DTI announced a 12-point plan to support the industry, including help with upgrading workers' skills.

Barry Morris, deputy general secretary of the union of Knitting, Footwear and Allied Trades, wants the industry to make full use of this support. "Many of us in the industry are passionate about training," he says, but there are disagreements on how it should be applied.

"Industry is desperate for skilled technical people," says Karen Coleman, who left industry and set up the Textile Centre at West Nottinghamshire College in Mansfield two years ago. The centre has state-of-the-art technology, including computerised pattern design and cutting systems, and offers training in making the textile components and also technical services. Ms Coleman believes that close links with the industry are essential to provide the training that manufacturers want.

Joan Long, chief executive of the Knitting, Lace and Narrow Fabrics national training organisation points out that the difficulty is that college departments accustomed to day release courses will have to adapt to rapidly changing businesses that work a shift system and want training on specific and sophisticated machines.

But colleges,being businesses too, can only run product-specific courses that have enough students to be cost effective.

Mr Morris says some college courses are folding because firms often cannot afford the cover to release staff for training. KLITRA is researching alternatives, such as an interactive CD-Rom on operating textile machinery produced by Leeds University.

Textile employers in West Yorkshire are working together on training. The Huddersfield and District Training Company, representing 75 local employers, opened a centre of excellence in May 1999 comprising workshops, a textile testing laboratory, information technology suites and conference facilities. Through its facilities and co-operation with local colleges, universities, commercial interests and government, the centre hopes to cover members' training, education and consultancy requirements in textile technology, health and safety, management and IT.

The CAPITB Trust, the national training organisation for the clothing industry, says there is an urgent need for the industry and educators to get together to produce courses and qualifications which will lead to jobs.

Project manager Brian Seddon is particularly concerned that colleges and universities are turning out too many designers and too few technicians, especially pattern cutters who turn designers' drawings into working templates for the garment-makers. He blames a national culture that values designing above manufacturing.

As industry complains of a lack of techical and business skills, the colleges complain of a lack of industrial placements for both students and lecturers, who need to update their knowledge.

The CAPITB Trust wants the Government to recognise that skills training takes time and fund course hours accordingly. CAPITB'S TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS

* An annual national conference for industrialists and educationalists.

* A programme of education for school pupils, their parents and careers professionals to improve the image of the industry.

* A nationwide directory of full-time courses relevant to the industry on the CAPITB website.

* A review of the number and content of college courses to bring them into closer alignment with the needs of the industry.

* Greater industry involvement in curriculum development, student and staff industrial placements and lifelong learning for employees.

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