Fashion

A push at the government’s recent jobs and skills summit to increase women’s workforce participation has highlighted the need to financially support apprenticeship programs in the fashion industry. By Lucianne Tonti.

Jobs for the girls

Australian Fashion Council chief executive Leila Naja Hibri.
Australian Fashion Council chief executive Leila Naja Hibri.
Credit: AAP Image / James Gourley

Zoe Daniel’s call for more government investment in training for female-dominated industries at the jobs and skills summit this month came with an unequivocal message for the fashion industry: “If you want this, get on the front foot.” 

The new independent member for Goldstein sees a window of opportunity to help the clothing and textile industry, “but it may well pass”. 

“You’ve got a lot of women in parliament, a lot of women on the crossbench, and women’s empowerment and women’s safety were prevalent issues during the election campaign.” 

The Australian Apprenticeships Incentives System established by the Morrison government this year was designed to motivate employers to hire and train apprentices in occupations facing severe skills shortages. But a quick scan of the associated priority list conjures visions of hard hats, tool belts, high-vis and safety boots. Amid all this accoutrement of male-dominated professions, the fashion industry is notably absent. 

Leila Naja Hibri, the chief executive of the Australian Fashion Council, is determined to change this, as she highlights a crisis in local garment manufacturing. She says a real skills shortage in the fashion industry is “impeding growth in terms of local production and [the industry’s] ability to innovate and prosper and become competitive with the rest of the world”. 

The shortage Naja Hibri identifies is partly due to the hardships of the pandemic: from factory closures because of extended lockdowns to immigration restrictions. But a crisis has long been predicted by Australian designers who manufacture locally, resulting from an ageing workforce and a lack of programs to entice younger generations to learn the skills of the garment trade. 

Julia O’Toole, the production manager for Sydney brand KITX – from designer Kit Willow – is struggling to get collections produced in Australia. She says, “Every supplier says the same thing, they say, ‘I can’t get anyone, they’re going away or they’ve retired’.

“Having been in the industry for a while, I’d say 90 per cent of the people I’ve contacted are the same people I worked with from 15 years ago. There’s not many new young makers or factories being set up.”

Naja Hibri believes the problem could be addressed with more incentivised trainee and apprentice programs targeted at the fashion industry. “Male-dominated industries are effective at skilling up their workforce, they have very successful apprenticeships and traineeship programs in those industries like construction and mining. We feel for this industry it’s a no-brainer that we implement apprentice and traineeship programs.”

 

Independent member for Warringah Zali Steggall echoed Naja Hibri’s view in the context of the jobs and skills summit, in which women’s workforce participation was heralded as a silver bullet for the economy. 

“For too long it’s been the case that if it doesn’t have a high-vis vest it doesn’t count. That’s got to change,” Steggall tells The Saturday Paper. She believes the preference for trades such as construction that both the former Coalition government and the new Labor government have displayed is a misunderstanding of the modern workforce. 

The Morrison government announced before this year’s election that it was allocating $38.6 million to encourage women to take up and complete an Australian apprenticeship in trade occupations that have typically been male-dominated and higher paid.

Brendan O’Connor, the new minister for Skills and Training, says, “It is critical for Australia to remove the structural barriers that have denied women equal participation in the economy and to encourage more women into higher-paying, vocational education and training-based careers.”

Steggall says the government should “start valuing traditionally female-dominated jobs”. 

“The vast majority of households are two-income households and so you have to look at job opportunities and diversity of trades,” she says. “It has to be across all sectors and all genders. It’s not just a question of saying women can go and do men’s jobs in male-dominated professions.”

 

At the end of last year, only 28.6 per cent of apprentices or trainees were women, according to statistics from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). And of the 349,235 apprentices and trainees still completing their courses across the country, 61.9 per cent were in trade occupations. And just 415 – 0.1 per cent – were learning in the textile, leather, clothing and footwear manufacturing sectors. 

When one accounts for jobs supported under the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program the numbers are even more concentrated in male-dominated industries, with as many as 41 per cent going into construction jobs, says Dr Cain Polidano, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic and Social Research.

“Drive past a construction site and the only job that women seem to be doing is holding a stop sign. Not many young women aspire to do that,” he says, adding that the net result is “not many women benefiting from this scheme”. 

Polidano describes the process that determines how incentive payments for apprenticeships are allocated as “a bit murky”. Despite some recent reviews of the process, fundamentally “the occupations that are on the national skills needs list haven’t [really] changed in the last 20 years. It’s hard to believe that our economy hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. It clearly has.” 

Naja Hibri attributes some of the imbalance to a lack of understanding about the scope and breadth of the fashion industry’s contribution to the economy. She says the government was “only looking at brands manufacturing in Australia, and that’s only about 3 per cent of the total, so imagine how much they were missing in the numbers”. 

To address the knowledge gap, in 2021 the Australian Fashion Council touted findings from a study – commissioned from professional services organisation EY – that accounted for the whole ecosystem around fashion manufacturing, including cotton and wool processing, right through to the creation of marketing campaigns. The resulting report revealed that women make up 77 per cent of the industry’s workforce, that it employs 489,000 people – more than mining – and generates more export revenue than wine and beer. EY’s research also revealed that boosting career pathways for women in the fashion industry could result in a $10 billion boon to the sector over a decade. 

 

Mary Lou Ryan, the director of sustainability and supply chains for designer label Bassike, describes the EY report as crucial to understanding how much the fashion industry contributes to Australia’s gross domestic product relative to other industries that have received more government funding. 

“It wasn’t until we got that report that we could actually see this is an incredible industry,” she says. “We’re twice the size of beer and wine and we employ more people than the mining industry, but here we are over here not getting any love.”

Ryan says apprenticeships are key to the longevity of local manufacturing, along with investments in technology, innovation and automation. “For us to develop and grow the local industry we do need government support to bring manufacturing up to a global standard through technology and innovation in terms of upskilling,” she says. 

Ryan also sees scale as necessary to the viability of investments in infrastructure and suggests making uniforms for the military and hospitality in Australia is one way to ensure this. 

“It’s bigger than just fashion brands. For us to be able to modernise we do need to scale and look at capabilities at a broader level, including textile manufacturing,” she says. 

The lack of support extends beyond apprenticeship programs. In 2021, the federal government gave the Australian Fashion Council a grant of $1 million to develop a trademark to help differentiate Australian designers in the global marketplace. That was just four years after Wine Australia received a $50 million grant over five years to bolster their export and tourism market. 

“And they’ve done an amazing job,” Naja Hibri says. “If you give [fashion] half the love you give to wine and beer then we can show you what it could look like.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Jobs for the girls ".

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