Sustainability Puzzle: Technological Shift and Widening Skill Gap in the Context of a Demand for Skilled Workers Greater than Supply

11 July 2022

In @fibre2fashion's analysis, the question of skilled labour is hard to pose to the global economy at a stage when there is a general mismatch in the labour market across the world. Although several sectors now have adequate or more workers than required, many sectors are in want of a larger supply. [Labour and Skills – Key Pieces in the Sustainability Puzzle – fibre2fashion]



Since last year, as all sectors re-opened post the lockdown, recovery in economic activity has kept the demand for labour higher than supply in previously hard-hit sectors such as fashion, hospitality, travel & tourism, and some manufacturing industries. On the other hand, unemployment levels in both US and EU are now lowest since the beginning of the pandemic.

While this is a short-term problem which will fix itself as market dynamics play out, a longer-term aspect of the labour market is yet to be widely addressed. The general inclination towards making textile and apparel industry more sustainable has increased in the last few years. In this movement, the role of digital technology and research & development is understood to be tremendous. Many digital solutions today promise greater visibility in the textile and apparel value chains and are being used to measure and reduce the impact of the industry on the climate. On the other hand, research & development is a key ingredient when it comes to the crucial field of material innovation among others. Both these drivers of change in the textile and apparel industry, however, assumes that the labour requirements could be met adequately. The question to be asked is do we have enough skilled personnel to achieve whatever sustainability targets we might set for the industry. Some would say the obvious answer is “no”, but let’s look more closely at the data behind it. We shall also look at what governments across the globe may be doing to tackle this problem.


One of the key challenges that faces the textile and apparel industry today is the technological shift itself, while the conventional skills of the industry lag far behind. On top of this, there is a general shortage of workers with genuine factory experience as the generation which got experienced in the factory will be retiring in some years and the supply of workers today is more adept at using digital technology than industrial machinery. The industry, however, needs both and needs them quicker.

There are several distinct changes in the industry that may require newer paradigms of relation between workers and technology. ILO Paper on future of work in the textile, clothing, leather, and footwear industry published in 2019 highlights some megatrends that will influence these changes. The use of laser cutting instead of manual cutting of fabric, the dramatic reduction in cost of making garments using sewbots, heavily automated production of footwear by some large brands, and the use of automated knitting machines to reduce time to produce sweaters are some examples of labour-saving technological advancements. If these changes are adopted at a larger scale, then it can enable re-shoring of production closer to consumers as the relevance of lower labour costs in emerging countries will simultaneously decline.

The use of technology not just brings greater savings in the industry and transparency of the supply chain but can also help improve the working conditions and reduce the gender imbalances that the industry is grossly infamous for. Many labour-saving technologies could save workers from hazardous activities that involve exposure to harmful chemicals and substances and extremely long working hours. Both environmental impact and working conditions in the fashion factories are key to ensure that the sustainability footprint increases as the industry progresses ahead. However, the ILO Paper mentions that even when the trend hints towards more use of such technologies going forward, there will be a shortage of skilled workers that can operate these technologies. This could very well slow down the rate of automation in the industry disproportionately. This will be a complete reversal of the advantage that this very lack of skills provided to the textile and apparel industry for its significant growth over the past two to three decades.

The State of Skills in the Apparel Industry Report 2020, jointly published by MOTIF and Alvanon, also highlights the skill-related challenges across the apparel industry and the strategies that corporations are undertaking to fill the skill gaps. Whereas, on the one hand, the report mentions companies recognising sustainability as a crucial issue for their business and the lack of relevant skillset in the market, there is also a less than sufficient effort from the corporations to impart these skills to their current workforce. Interestingly, a higher percentage of workers surveyed in the report received training on fashion design, product development, product development/design software or patternmaking in the last 12 months, while training in future-oriented skills such as data analytics, digital marketing or technology skills was much lower. The report, however, highlights a very nascent but sure trend towards companies increasingly investing in training and improving the skillset of their existing workers. That reduces the cost of finding the right skillset for the company as well as increases the trust between workers and companies and may help reduce attrition.

The skill gaps are also not just limited to being able to use new-age technology but also in designing products that fit the sustainability benchmarks. This involves various aspects – selection of appropriate materials, rethinking design to cater to consumer demands while also inching towards greater sustainability and being economical in costs and production processes. The demand from the textile, clothing, leather and footwear (TCLF) companies is also perhaps more for skills in the designing and production areas, as compared to their demand for green and digital skills. That is reflected in a 2021 EURATEX survey, conducted for the Pact for Skills programme for industries in European Union. The respondents in the survey (TCLF companies) reported demanding more of production process/design and conventional skills, while a large part also reported demanded up-skilling/re-skilling required to be ready for the new jobs.

Another important aspect of the jobs scenario suitable for bringing greater sustainability would perhaps be the involvement of more soft skills as covered by 2021 report by Keeping Workers in the Loop, an industry collaboration on sustainability supported by Laudes Foundation and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and in partnership with BSR’s Sustainable Future Lab, CMS, and economists from the University of Lincoln. Soft skills such as problem solving, flexibility, greater learning ability, self and resource management were preferred more by recruiters. One of the examples mentioned in the report was of repair workers, who may be required to inspect a garment, find the fault, and be able to mend and sew the garment accordingly. This will vary greatly in complexity from a repetitive sewing task in a production line. One of the most important skills would be to assess (or at least be aware of) the impact of a particular task on the overall sustainability goals of the organisation. This report also mentions that the technological and digital skills prevalent amongst the workers in the industry is significantly lower than would be required to scale up the efforts towards achieving greater circularity.

Policies adopted by some governments towards bridging the skill gap

Some of the large economies/economic regions have made policy changes and taken initiatives to bridging the skill gap of workers in the industry.

1) European Union

As mentioned above, the Pact for Skills programme in the EU is in place to implement necessary processes to fill the skill gap in many industries. The Pact is to promote more collaborative efforts from organisations of all kinds to put in place processes that encourage up-skilling/re-skilling of workers to adapt well to the changing nature of jobs. Under the Pact, the government also provides support in the form of knowledge sharing about skilling opportunities available and financial and non-financial support to MSMEs to create a learning environment for both employers and staff. The programme is expected to involve collaboration from diverse stakeholders – companies, workers, educational institutes, training providers, local and regional authorities, chamber of commerce, and employment services.

The Pact also connects to various other related government projects such as Europass & EURES (full-service employment portals for work opportunities across Europe) and Skills Panorama (intelligence portal on current and future skills and key labour market trends). The programme also includes designing new educational curriculums to cater to the new market trends and will also actively promote apprenticeships.

The EU government supported the establishment of a partnership for skill development in the TCLF industries under the Pact for Skills in December 2021. The policy will focus primarily on skills related to eco-design, fibre development, innovative textile production, and repair & reuse as these are the most important for bringing the industry close to being circular.

2) United Kingdom

The UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT) is now the primary organisation in the UK responsible for skills and training in the UK fashion and textile industry. The UKFT is bringing industry related knowledge and technical skills into curriculums at school as well as college levels to provide for a greater pool of skilled workers for the industry going forward. Post-Brexit, a good chunk of non-UK workers fled back to their home countries and will perhaps never return. This has led the sector skills body to recognise skill shortage and take corrective steps.

Recently, the Department of Education in the UK has also come out with a Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy to imbibe sustainability and climate change thinking and tools in the education and children’s services systems. The strategy has tremendous focus on developing skill set in the students that would help achieve UK net-zero targets and climate change targets in their industries. The Strategy has set out with an initial investment of Pound 3.8 billion to develop and implement different kinds of skills programmes (boot camps and courses) and help employers, educations providers and other stakeholders to build capacity towards achieving these objectives.

3) Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the largest hubs of activity in the textiles and apparel industry. Its textile and apparel industry development plan until 2020 and vision for 2030 reflects extreme focus on developing the industry keeping in mind environmental protection. The development plan envisages to bring more research into the industry to create newer materials which are more environment friendly. It also envisions developing certification standards in line with international practices and building capacity to gain from international consulting and technology transfers to also create newer models of research institutes. Every bit of this change will need a thorough understanding of the skills required to undertake these tasks and training of human resources at many levels.

Training of human resources under the development plan document involves mention of technological skills, production management and trade keeping in mind the sustainability goals. The plan mentions development training programmes at the government level, and financial support to enterprises for conducting skilling and re-skilling programmes for their workers. Support is also provided to training establishments to help enterprises and foreign partners in such human resource development programmes. For the established industrial parks, separate training establishments is provided to skill local workers and to those employed in the parks.

4) China

In China, green industrial development has been in focus since more than 15 years. In its five-year plans, China has consistently laid out detailed plans to make its existing industries more sustainable and developing all infrastructure for sectors such as clean energy which can facilitate a green transition for the overall economy. The impact of China’s development plans has led to labour moving from the conventional sectors in search for jobs in the ‘sunrise’ sectors. One key aspect of the green skill development is to make these workers (moving out of conventional sectors) to be employable in the newer sectors. In this objective, local governments, firms, and employers’ representatives in some cases, come together and negotiate job placement arrangements for the displaced workers. These arrangements likely include the employers providing green skills retraining to workers for these jobs.

5) India

The Government of India launched the Green Skill Development Programme in 2018 under the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, with a vision to imbibe the youth with skills that could help them be more aware of the environmental challenges facing the entire world and could help them find solutions to these problems. The programme was launched to fill the gap for soft or green skills that would be of tremendous value in the future. To begin this programme, the government began with a pilot course – for skilling biodiversity conservationists (basic course) and para-taxonomists (advanced course) – for three months in ten districts across the country.       

The programme also proposed several other courses that were planned to take place in due course over the next few years. Some of the relevant ones for the overall industry listed under the programme are – 1) Sustained and Enhanced Technical Knowledge in Solar Energy Systems, 2) Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Green GDP, 3) Pollution Monitoring (Air, Water and Soil), 4) laboratory Technicians/Technical Assistants for electrical testing for environmental criteria, 5) Waste Management, 6) Laboratory Assistants for eco-friendly food testing facilities, and 7) Greenbelt Development for Industries, among several others. The programme envisaged to impart green skills to more than five lakh (500,000) individuals until the end of FY21 and continues to provide green skills and employment to the youth.


In order to make the textiles and apparel industry more sustainable, the understanding and ability to work with the available technology is as important (perhaps more) than constantly developing newer ones. The world surely needs resource saving methods to produce, but we also need to imbibe both technological skills and soft skills (such as problem solving, ability to connect minor tasks with sustainability goals, etc) to a broader set of the population so that the technology serves its purpose. Several countries are framing policies towards skilling their workforce for greater resiliency, and many more will follow as the need becomes more imminent.


Paese: China| India| United Kingdom| Vietnam
Vietnam| India| Domanda| lavoratori| tessile-pelle| Offerta| sostenibilità| Unione Europea (UE)| china

More news