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Getting fresh blood into this industry is our problem!

1st Oct 2012 , Phillip Nutt; Wenco

It’s difficult for countries which have lost their footwear training institutions to attract young people to the industry

I hear the comment all the time that it is so difficult to find young people for our industry, yet hardly a day goes by that I don`t personally get an enquiry via LinkedIn from a budding wannabe shoe designer asking for advice on how to start their own shoe label and get into the shoe business.

Sadly, many of the enquiries are from young people who appear to have no basic knowledge of what it takes to set up and run a successful business of any kind. Somewhere among these budding Tamara Mellons and John Lobbs one would hope that just a few might actually make it from their own little dream world to the reality of day-to-day grinding it out selling shoes.

The fact is that most of the candidates simply have no shoe skills whatsoever. They are exposed to the constant media ‘dream world’ of reality television and fashion programmes such as Project Runway, and they believe that this business is as easy as a 20 minute (don`t forget the commercials) recorded and spliced show makes it look.

Yes, there is a shortage of good talent entering our industry, and many factors contribute to that scenario.

I have my views and others may differ, but I lay the problems firmly at the feet of the industry’s leaders, not the kids wanting to be a part of the world of the Cordwainer.

1/ The Demise of the Apprenticeship System: I am so damn old now I can remember when I started out that the dream of a junior apprentice was simply to work hard and hope to move through the ranks of the company to the coveted job of head of department.

I can still recall some of the Northamptonshire men’s high grade welted factories, where hand upper leather clickers would be ranked by seniority by the positions of their cutting boards, one behind the other in rows. Juniors would wear brown smocks, hoping one day to achieve the pinnacle of their development by getting to the front of the row and the white smock that went with that achievement.

Young people today don`t want to start at the bottom. They want to be at the top from the start.

The idea of a low paying apprenticeship is only now beginning to reappear as a means of finding employment for the millions of young people now left without hope for the future as the West crumbles and our respected craft skills are lost to antiquity.

2/ The Cost of Certified Training Schools: I was a product of the Northampton College of Technology Footwear Manufacturing Course, a 2-year college diploma programme staffed by teachers of the true old school craft. I can still remember every one of them by name and their images are indelibly etched on my brain. Names like Albert Goodfellow (Pattern Cutting), Freddie Bending (Hand welt sewing), George Lewin (Machine lasting), John Thornton, our Principal, who made the whole exercise fun, and one I owe so much to for the faith he showed in me – Ken Riches, our Design teacher, who eventually emigrated to South Africa and was a part of your industry for so many years.

Northampton was a vehicle for the sons and daughters (not many of the latter in the 60s) of the leading shoe factories to get a quick course in all that was good about our craft. As such it was a little bit of a Playboy Club, given that local shoe factories would send some of their young, good looking female sewing staff for certain daily courses. I was also always impressed by the local lads who were willing to work all day in a shoe factory and still have the energy and interest to take night school classes within our department. I think it was these young people who wanted to make something of themselves who gave me the personal drive to succeed. I simply saw too much wasted effort or lack of effort amongst the gentry of the industry and I think a lot of this caused the downfall of our British industry.

Sadly today the costs of attending a full time training course, which is now a Degree course of the likes of Cordwainers, are simply not financially attainable for many who don`t come from family businesses.

3/ The Paternal Company has been replaced by corporate profit obsession: I was proud to say I was a Bata Man for 23 years. There was no shoe company on the face of this earth that invested in people training as much as my old boss, Thomas J Bata. You can be gone for 10 or more years and yet as a group we are still Bata Men (and thankfully there are women as well).

At Bata, the organisation created and operated its own training schools on a par in quality with those of the government run colleges.

C and J Clarks did the same.

The Northampton College was really established to act as one single training establishment for the many individual shoe making enterprises of that area. There were similar schools on the Continent of equal stature, but now sadly most have closed.

In North America, it was easier and cheaper to simply send a few to Europe for training. Their trade organisations helped out a little with cut-and-paste product knowledge manuals, and some of these manuals are so riddled with incorrect terminology it’s no wonder there is hardly any domestic manufacturing left.

Today, there are a few footwear consultants who do run 3-day basic knowledge courses, but sadly the idea of training people has now been replaced by head hunters who are tasked with finding and enticing talented people away from successful companies in the hope that one person can make such a difference to a company that is already lost.

If there is one thing I remember about my days working with Japanese shoe companies is that there is no letter ‘I’ in the word ‘Team’.

North America will not come right again until it starts to put more emphasis on ‘We’ and not ‘Me’.

I see so many good people, dedicated to their craft, who don`t leave at the first call of a head hunter, while absolute incompetents are packaged up as God’s gift to industry, and then we wonder why we have the mess we do today. The Peter Principle (employees are often promoted beyond their level of ability) is still alive and well thanks to today`s easy short term business practices.

4/ Nepotism in this Industry is a factor: I am from multi generations of the industry. It’s in my blood, and yet I always wondered why, from my great-grandfather to my father, all successful businessmen would constantly stress to me: “Be a Professional.”

At the time I thought it was to encourage me just to study, but now, as I see the successes of my Doctor daughter, I realise what my wise old forefathers were on about. A ‘professional’ (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) don`t suffer the vagaries of political decisions in terms of global trade that one could not foresee when one starts a career.

Would I have gone into the shoe business in 1963 knowing what I know today about the state of the world?

Our industry is still generally a body of family generations. The big corporate world is eating up the lesser mortals and it is very difficult for the next generations to be as ‘in tune’ with the market as their founding fathers.

One of my favourite films of all time is Kinky Boots, and to me that film says it all. To be in this business, you really must want to be in it. I remember my father could do business on a handshake with tycoons of the industry. Today you need a lawyer around for every decision.

5/ Dream, because without dreams you have nothing to strive for: For those kids who love Louboutins, who would like to own Jimmy Choo, or simply have their own little craft enterprise, I say go for it. Our job, as industry members, is to encourage new entrants into an industry that is now tired and run down.

I do see new approaches happening. I encourage the wannabes to think new product niches, to rethink classic distribution, to challenge all that exists now.

We had a saying at Bata that was in every Bata Man`s notebook. It said: If you can`t go round a problem, go over it, or under it, and if that doesn`t work, then simply go THROUGH it. – Phillip Nutt [Email: wenco@rogers.com]

Phillip Nutt is the president of Wenco International Footwear Consultants, based in Canada. His intimate knowledge of South Africa comes from a fondly remembered stint with Bata SA in Pinetown. An outline of his services is available on his website, www.wenco.ca.




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