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How UKFT is minding the skills gap

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Drapers speaks to industry insiders to hear how the UKFT is battling to close the fashion and textile sector’s skills gap and what still needs to be done

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The skills gap in the UK’s fashion and textiles industry is a pressing problem. The sector is eyeing growth as British brands and retailers seek to re-shore manufacturing operations, whether because of a continued need for speed, sustainability benefits or unique craftsmanship.

However, all sectors of the industry face a battle to counteract an ageing skilled workforce, dwindling numbers of new employees, funding issues and a complex new approach to apprenticeships.

In November 2017, the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) took over as the sector skills body for fashion and textiles from skills development body Creative Skillset (which is now known as Screen Skills and focuses on skills in the film and TV industry). It gives advice to employers, prospective employees and training providers, hoping to tackle the skills gap head on.

“A key issue for the fashion and textiles industry is a lack of new people coming into the workforce,” says Adam Mansell, CEO of UKFT. “The ageing workforce and the image of the sector are preventing companies recruiting talent of the future.”

“UKFT’s work has been focused on ensuring new routes into manufacturing roles are relevant and available. We have led the development of new, industry led apprenticeships, making sure qualifications are relevant by introducing a recognition programme.”

John West, skills and training manager for the UKFT, has been instrumental in driving the body’s approach in the year since it took over the role from Creative Skillset.

“The biggest thing for the industry and for the UKFT was to get ownership [of the sector skills body] back to the industry and make sure there was one voice co-ordinating all skills and training across the UK,” explains West. 

“The major issue from the UKFT perspective is about helping the industry and its sub-sectors: asking them what their crucial jobs are – the ones that, if they were to fall off the edge of a cliff and disappear, would halt your needs.”

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This has led the UKFT to act as secretariat in the creation of new apprenticeship standards to teach these skills, a core way to encourage new talent into the industry – be it as machinists or as pattern cutters.

Following the government’s Richard Review of Apprenticeships in 2012, wide-scale, complex reforms were rolled out that created a new, employer-led “apprenticeship standard”. Old apprenticeship frameworks will close for enrolment in 2020.

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The UKFT acts as secretariat to help develop new apprenticeship standards for employers, and is working with businesses including Mulberry, Burberry, Christopher Raeburn and the Cambridge Satchel Company. The UKFT liaises with official bodies including the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) to secure approvals for the standards, cutting through complex governmental processes.

“It’s important to have that secretariat role of somebody who has been working with the employers for many years and understands the educational landscape as well as the industrial landscape,” says West. “I can easily sit between the two and try and get what the employers want on paper, and also appease what the IfA would like to see as a finished document.”

Luxury bag and womenswear brand Mulberry has developed a new apprenticeship standard with the UKFT as secretariat. Supply chain director Rob Billington explains that the schemes are vital for encouraging new, young talent into the industry. Mulberry initially launched an apprenticeship project in 2006, and has had 220 participants.

“We felt that the apprenticeship scheme was a great way to bring in and really nurture new talent in the industry,” says Billington. “The apprenticeship scheme was instrumental in helping to change the demographic of craftspeople. It was also a real alternative at the time for youngsters to not go to university.”

“I want the apprentices to come through and have a steeper career path than a normal recruit. That’s our commitment to them. Getting a job in a factory and building a career from the ground up isn’t what everyone wants to do.”

However, Billington describes the process of creating a new apprenticeship standard as a “bureaucratic nightmare”.

“The government pitched the new approach as an employer-led initiative,” he says. “Employers are intrinsically involved, but we need someone else to lead us through the minefield of civil service bureaucracy.”

“There needs to be someone independent – like the UKFT – that understands the inner workings of the government departments, understands the needs of employers and understands how to bring that all together to facilitate the whole process.”


Having engaged the UKFT as secretariat six months ago, Mulberry is now moving forward with its new approach. It will take in 10 to 12 new apprentices per year at its Somerset base.

Mulberry is a large enough company that it pays the apprenticeship levy. Employers with a pay bill of more than £3m a year pay a tax that can be claimed back to fund apprenticeship training. However, West explains that the UKFT is campaigning to ensure that small and medium-sized firms are also able to engage in training without detriment to their overall business.

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“We’re lobbying to make sure that the SMEs and micros can continue to engage in training,” he says. “Without that there will be no growth in the industry. It’s a big investment in money and time for anybody from an SME to do training.”

A step towards this was made in the 2018 autumn Budget, when chancellor Philip Hammond announced that SMEs will now only have to pay a 5% levy when they take on apprentices, a cut from the current 10% levy.

There is, however, a disadvantage that still needs tackling – the lack of awareness of fashion and textile careers among young people.

“We have an aging workforce and we struggle with recruitment – we’re up against a lot of sectors that are covered in a pre-16 age group. There is very little fashion and textiles coverage in schools now,” says West.

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To a “T”

One step towards redressing this may come from the new “T-level” qualifications, currently in development, which will sit alongside A-levels. The UKFT is part of the body that will oversee the content outline for this craft and design qualification – which will include fashion and textiles. The programmes are set to roll out in 2022 and 2023.

Mustafa Fuat, director of luxury manufacturer Gosha, which works with designers such as Christopher Kane, Peter Pilotto and Roland Mouret from its factory in north London, stresses that raising awareness and improving reputation is crucial to securing the future of UK manufacturing, and encouraging those from design backgrounds to consider the profession.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure that we are doing the right thing to encourage and attract young people into the industry,” he says. “If [students and young people] were made aware of the manufacturing side from the beginning, they may consider entering the sector. We have an incredible potential in design and manufacturing in London.”

He notes that the British Fashion Council (BFC) should place more emphasis on the role of manufacturers to raise awareness of alternatives to designing, using the platform of London Fashion Week to showcase the opportunities of the manufacturing sector for design graduates.

“The reality is 90% of designers that come out of college every year won’t cut it as designers,” he says. “We need to have some kind of pathway that’s direct so the graduates know about manufacturing as an option.”

“It’s all about education and creating awareness – the environment we create as manufacturers to attract youngsters. All manufacturers have a responsibility to pass on the vision of fashion manufacturing as a sexy profession and not a dead-end job. It is a career.”

He notes that in the past year he has brought “some green shoots” improving awareness, as the UKFTs focus has helped to kick-start renewed interest in the sector.

Clear content

Clarity and consistency of content and standards across the industry is also an issue, and, over the past year, much of the focus has been on aligning standards of training. The UKFT is now the External Quality Assurance Organisation (EQAO) for apprenticeships, ensuring all apprenticeships offer the same level of training wherever they are based.

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Source: Fiona Bailey

Beyond apprenticeships, an Industry Recognised Programme (IRP) has been launched. This accredits qualifications from outside awarding bodies, to ensure they deliver the promised results.

“The UKFT experts look at whether the content of the qualification addresses the skills gaps and needs in those professions,” says the UKFT’s West. “It’s trying to give the stamp that these qualifications do what they say on the tin – a seal of approval.”

The programme kicked off by approving 17 qualifications from recognised awarding body ABC Awards, which include those in tailoring, garment technology and pattern cutting.

Brita Hirsch, founder of Hirsch Tailoring, has recently become accredited to teach the ABC Awards Level 5 Diploma in Bespoke Tailoring. Much of her work focuses on developing skills in those older than school age.

“Typically, students would be fashion design graduates that have that degree under their belt but have realised that they haven’t got the practical skills that they need,” explains Hirsch.

She highlights the growing need for a more joined-up design education to help fill the skills gap – to equip graduates with the skills they need to succeed across the industry, not just in manufacturing directly but across design jobs.

“Without the technical foundation to actually transfer their ideas to a tangible set of instructions to the industry, they literally can’t do their jobs,” she says. “There is a big offer out there for conceptual training. The real shortage is still with practical training.”

“People don’t learn the technical side of things. They don’t have a chance to get their hands on things and, if they do, then it is often quite limited.”

With the first steps to progress now in place, the momentum will shift to raising awareness and lobbying for better funding options.

“The main focus is to finish up developments and continue lobbying for funding to be allocated for training,” says the UKFT’s West. “The key for the next year is that, yes, it’s great to have all these things being developed, but they’re no use just being sat on a shelf. We have to get out there and spread the word.”


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