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Relying on the Institution and the Degree

By Joshua Williams

11 Nov 2021


Joshua Williams

For many years, the onus of educating employees in the fashion industry was primarily that of the employer. Firstly, the industry relied heavily on women and because higher education was not generally available to them, companies had to train them with the skills they needed to do their jobs. Secondly, most fashion companies were family run businesses and relied on local workers, so the training happened naturally on the job. Thirdly, fashion required specialized skills related to merchandising, buying, production and retailing. And because each company had their own approach or style, companies benefited from training employees according to their particular needs. As companies grew, these programs expanded to be more formal, with the likes of Macy’s offering full training programs and certifications. In fact, early fashion schools such as the Fashion Institute of Technology built their two-year certifications on matriculating students into these types of programs.

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While some of these corporate programs persist, their fundamental approach (and need) shifted once fashion education became fully integrated into undergraduate degree programs at universities. The onus for training employees shifted from the employer to the university. To a degree, this helped to provide a more consistent foundation in terms of knowledge and skills. And it provided students with a more 360 degree view of the industry beyond a specific job they were training for, along with better soft skills, such as collaboration and communication. But, it also meant that students were learning less hard skills, creating a chasm between what was learned in college versus what was needed on the job.

And it just so happened that the shift to degree programs also coincided with a massive shift in the industry driven by technology and e-commerce. All of the sudden, companies were in need of new skills that they were not able to teach internally, and which universities were also unable to teach. After all, there were few industry practitioners to call on–and those that were experts in these new skills were in high-demand outside of academia.

Over time, the chasm between education and corporations became wider and deeper, where now a common refrain among fashion brands and retailers is that universities are not properly teaching students. And the response from schools is, “but, we can only do so much within the constraints of a degree program!”

EdTech or technology-led education has tried to fill the space, by offering a wide range of courses online. And to a degree, this has been helpful in providing continuing learning beyond the university. But these ed-tech companies rely heavily on universities to support the content. So, the delivery is different, but the content, while more expansive in scope, is largely the same in structure and approach. And more importantly, just like traditional education, these companies focus heavily on more generalized topics to meet the needs of the widest user base. This means more specific fashion skills are still not being taught.

Additionally, there are new start-ups whose focus is to help companies finance education for their employees. But again, this system is reliant on traditional universities to deliver the education, leaving some employees to wonder why they’re not being trained to do the jobs they already have better, rather than go back to a more generalized or non-related degree; this is particularly true for retail workers.

Which means the onus is back on the employers to educate employees with the unique skills they require. The cost, time and expertise to develop these programs can be high so this has largely remained in the realm of larger companies such as Macy’s, Saks, Walmart or Target. And with so many fashion companies being small or medium sized, this means a large portion of fashion and retail employees are being left out. And yet, to ensure constant innovation and competitiveness, this may now be a requirement of doing business. Perhaps the next opportunity is for companies who can provide access and scale to these companies to provide education and training.

In our next episode, we’ll explore some of the exciting research that is coming from fashion-focused researchers and academics, and how a more collaborative relationship between academia and industry could help to solve the problems fashion faces in a fast-changing world.