Reprinted with permission from insidefashiondesign.net
Industrial sewing has reached a critical point. An aging workforce combined with a lack of incoming talent has created a worker shortage that threatens to shutter long-standing American businesses and stifle growth in a billion-dollar industry.
We spoke with someone on the front lines of the battle to save industrial sewing—Magda Ronningen, National Program Manager of the Makers Division at Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). Magda and IFAI’s Makers Division are working to rebuild industrial sewing’s crumbling infrastructure with education and better access to jobs and training.
The Makers Division at IFAI is trying to avert a coming crisis with worker shortages in the industry. What are some of the unique challenges facing the industrial fabrics and sewing industry right now?
Aging workforce and not enough talent to sustain the workforce. A shortage of patternmakers, a shortage of sewing machine repair workers, and a shortage of training for cost measurement in manufacturing and manufacturing time standards.
A lack of career entry points: The majority of the home economics classes have disappeared in middle schools across the country, with perhaps the exception of California. A small selection of sewing classes are being taught in high schools, however budget cuts have impacted them tremendously in the last decade partially because of the popularity of culinary programs which are cheaper to run and drive bigger classroom numbers, which is appealing to administrators. Sewing classes require a lot of personal attention from the teacher. For industrial sewing, 8-14 students in a class is a good number. High school teachers are often teaching 22-32 students at a time.
What is the worst-case scenario if this looming crisis comes to a head?
I speak to businesses across the country every week. Every conversation except for one has indicated how difficult it is to find talent–not just skilled, experienced talent, but anyone who is willing to learn and be trained. As a result, companies are depending on their employees to attract their relatives for job positions. The one company that wasn’t having a difficult time finding sewers was located in Texas, where there are still skilled sewers left over from when the Levi’s plant closed. An outdoor gear in Northern Minnesota has had almost all their sewers retire without being able to find replacements. The company has gone from twenty-four industrial sewing operators a few years ago to just six remaining sewing operators. They will be forced out of business in the next few years if they cannot locate more sewing talent.
What efforts are being made to turn things around?
IFAI Makers Division is trying to rebuild some of the infrastructure that was lost due to two recessions and offshoring. We just opened a “Find a Contract Sewer” online directory. We are bringing online education directly to our members creating an online video technical library to help them access cutting edge training and manufacturing techniques. We are also creating webinar education such as a prototyping series to help educate entrepreneurs and innovators, and we are reaching out to support schools to create a pipeline from education to industry.
If someone wants to enter the industrial sewing workforce, what are some great ways to get started?
There are several schools in the country that still teach apparel design and upholstery. Tarrant County College in Fort Worth Texas and Milwaukee Area Technical College offer upholstery courses, and often local upholstery organizations offer classes. Industrial sewing operators are in high demand. Many companies are willing to train people without experience, but most employers would like at least 200-400 hours of experience. Successful industrial sewing operators are not color blind, have good hand dexterity, can concentrate for long periods of time, have an eye for precision and desire perfection in their work and are task-oriented people who like to get a job done. Nonprofit sewing organizations are popping up all over the country and offer industrial sewing training and often assist immigrant and refugee populations to obtain the skills needed to become an industrial sewing operator.
What are some examples of how industrial fabrics and fashion apparel design intersect today?
Increasingly, there is a larger and larger cross-over between apparel and industrial manufacturing due to new technology, e-textiles, and smart fabrics which are now being used in medical, military and athletic applications. New inventions that utilize athletic wear include a wearable heart monitor sewn into the garment itself, an e-textile wearable glove that can detect Parkinson’s disease tremors, and an inflatable motorcycle suit that can detect an oncoming crash and self inflates to protect the wearer. Smart fabrics are engineered to be anti-microbial, and anti-friction and have tremendously wide applications for sportswear, sports gear, medical wear and new technology.
Do you know there is wearable solar technology that can charge your cell phone while you are wearing your clothes? These innovations are changing the industry, and IFAI is a leader in supporting the fabric manufacturers, the e-textiles technology, the market place and more. IFAI’s largest trade show of the year, EXPO, has an entire e-textiles education track to help innovators connect and share ideas. Next October, IFAI Expo will be on October 15-18, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. For over one hundred years, IFAI has provided members with education, marketplace and recognition.
To learn more about the Makers Division, visit https://makers.ifai.com.