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Fashion Industry Warns Of Severe Skills Shortages Because Of "Brexit Talent Drain"

5 min read

The fashion industry has warned it faces severe talent shortages after a government advisory body rejected its plea to offer more visas to foreign workers

Last year the majority of manufacturers already had vacancies and were “concerned about a potential talent shortage with their predominantly European workforce seeking the security of work at factories on mainland Europe”, according to think tank Fashion Roundtable.

This week Tamara Cincik, the group’s founder and CEO, told PoliticsHome that a year later, businesses “have more vacancies than ever”, with work moving abroad and companies relocating from a sector worth billions to the UK economy.

A spokesperson for menswear brands owned by Great British Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant told PoliticsHome that amid a widespread labour shortage, they are unable to get the right candidates with specialist training post-Brexit.

Last summer Fashion Roundtable applied to put garment workers and fashion creatives on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), fearing that an exodus of workers post-Brexit would leave gaps in the largest of the creative industries, worth £35billion a year, but it was rejected by the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

A government source said they wanted employers to “make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”.

Last week Boris Johnson suggested the current workforce issues, which have caused chaos in the supply chain for a number of sectors, were a necessary part of plans to reshape the economy in favour of high-skilled, high-wage jobs for British workers.

But in their submission to MAC the fashion industry body said while it welcomed the government’s new “T Level” vocational qualifications to train British workers, there would still be a huge shortfall in skilled labour during the time it would take any new applicants to train. Because the programme launched in September 2020, the first graduates will not have finished their courses until September 2022.

“Why were these not speeded up to be rolled out before we leave the EU?” Cincik asked.

"The loss of UK domicile workers is impacted by the last decade's STEM education agenda, leading to a loss in the knowledge throughout school of basic sewing skills – as important for garment workers as surgeons.”

In the meantime companies are already moving their businesses. “They urgently need quick and simple access to the EU market, otherwise many will look at relocation, indeed they already are”, Cincik explained.

“John Horner, head of Models 1, told me of a £1million commercial shoot which moved to Paris due to the red tape.

“Farfetch [the online luxury fashion retail platform] have announced their new HQ will relocate from Old Street to Portugal, taking 7,000 jobs, primarily in fashion tech, creative and digital, where the UK has again enjoyed a leading reputation.”

Fashion is one of a number of industries calling for help recruiting workers, which so far have been rebuffed by government – except in the case of HGV drivers, where an estimated shortfall of 100,000 hauliers is affecting everything from fuel availability to food stocks.

“You cannot argue for on-shoring, levelling up and higher wages, if you have golden handshakes for HGV drivers and not for other sectors,” Cincik added.

"Some garment workers are now becoming HGV drivers, meaning since the Brexit talent drain, they have more vacancies than ever.”

Fashion designer Patrick Grant, a judge on the hit BBC programme The Great British Sewing Bee, owns Savile Row tailors Norton and Sons and menswear brand ETautz, who are struggling to hire people with industry experience.

His firm told PoliticsHome for entry level jobs, and those without specialist training they have had dozens of applicants get in touch within days, but just a handful have applied for sewing machinist roles which have been open for 10 weeks or more.

Their head of HR said: “Finding people with industry specific skills is incredibly hard, even at good wage rates (our pay scale is £9.50 to 14.50/hr for production staff). The talent pool is far too small.

“Beyond that, of the people who do apply, possibly because they have to, the majority are not work-ready.

“Attendance is poor, their willingness to be told what to do is low, boredom threshold is low. There are exceptions of course.

“If we are to build a successful post-Brexit UK labour market schools and colleges need to dramatically rethink what they do for those people who are not going to end up in white-collar jobs.”

Adam Mansell, CEO of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, said labour shortages are having a significant impact in various sectors.

“Many manufacturers have seen orders come back at a much greater level than they had expected and are having problems recruiting skilled staff in an increasingly competitive environment,” he told PoliticsHome.

“However this skills shortage has been a long term issue in our industry, which requires structural change and education at school level to entice new talent into the sector.”

A Home Office spokesperson defended their decision not to add textile workers to its shortage of occupation list. 

The spokesperson said: “The independent Migration Advisory Committee considered evidence from the fashion industry in its September 2020 review, but concluded there was not a strong enough case to recommend adding jobs to the shortage of occupation list.”

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