2020 HR Report: The B.C. apparel industry fights back against a talent shortage

The sector is taking a strategic approach to producing and attracting the workers of the future

Credit: Courtesy of Mustang Survival

Mustang Survival’s Mark Anderson reckons the province’s apparel business will need to fill about 5,000 jobs in the next five years

The sector is taking a strategic approach to producing and attracting the workers of the future

When Chip Wilson talks, other clothing manufacturers listen. And for good reason. When he spoke in October at a meeting of the newly formed BC Apparel & Gear Association (BCAG) at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue on SFU‘s downtown campus, Wilson was introduced as “the most disruptive entrepreneurial legend the Vancouver apparel industry has ever seen” and “widely credited with the mega innovation of creating the athleisure retail category.”

Yet the founder of Westbeach Apparel and Lululemon Athletica, now part owner of North Vancouver–based Arc’teryx Equipment, France’s Salomon Group and Chicago-headquartered Wilson Sporting Goods Co., struggles with the same shortage of workers as the rest of the industry in B.C.

“The last 35 years, I’ve recognized that probably my biggest bottleneck, notwith-standing pattern makers, has really been technical apparel designers,” Wilson told the audience. To produce more, he spearheaded the creation of the Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus in 2018, donating $8 million to the $36-million project.

Credit: Lindsay Siu

Even clothing icon Chip Wilson has trouble finding workers in B.C.

A series of studies over the past four years by the BC Apparel Sector Labour Market Partnership (LMP), a collaboration between the industry and the provincial and federal governments, found that the sector has experienced significant growth since 2010 and projects that by 2025 it will support 11,350 jobs, 48.5 percent more than in 2016. There are already shortages in positions from executives to designers and, especially, sewers.

Apparel is the fourth-largest manufacturing subsector in B.C., with 84 percent of businesses located in the Mainland/Southwest region, according to a 2016 LMP report. The new association is the first step toward creating a supercluster for apparel and gear brands. At the launch meeting, Mark Anderson, director of engineering and quality at marine gear maker Mustang Survival in Burnaby and a BCAG board member, explained that the association’s purpose is to “bring the professionals together to have conversations on a regular basis about trends, hot topics, issues they’re facing.”

The big one is talent. A recent BCAG study showed that there were 1,200 open positions in the industry, and Anderson estimated some 5,000 will need to be filled in the next five years to keep up with growth rates. “What all of that is causing is the merry-go-round effect,” he observed. “It’s kind of neat because we get to know each other, because people are moving around from all these different companies. It’s terrible for onboarding, training costs.”

Anderson outlined four areas to address: immigration, training programs, aligning industry needs with post-secondary curricula and raising awareness among youth. “We can’t compete on a global scale with other countries if our immigration process isn’t helping us grow,” he pointed out, recommending that the industry become part of the federal Global Talent Stream program, which fast-tracks certain positions and occupations, and the British Columbia Provincial Nominee Program for skilled workers. He also mentioned launching an international awareness campaign.

Another problem is a lack of training programs. “A lot of people end up in this industry almost accidentally or from other industries,” Anderson said. “There’s limited skilled worker training programs, so when we hire someone, we need to train them.” There are also few offerings for people who want to upgrade their skills. One LMP study suggested that shortening training could help workers fill vacancies more quickly and then learn more-advanced skills on the job.

As for post-secondary courses, “It’s not that they’re teaching the wrong things,” Anderson said. “We just need way more.” Industry members must work with the institutions to identify and establish technical specialized programs that are missing, like a materials developer degree. Mustang Survival now hires materials science engineers and takes them through six months of training.

Lastly, an LMP survey of 500 youths revealed that just 0.48 percent want careers in the industry, and few realize the range of opportunities, from design and engineering to manufacturing and e-commerce positions. “Most people just think it’s retail,” Anderson remarks. “I go down to Robson Street, I buy something. I don’t know where it comes from; I don’t know how it gets created.” Solutions could include raising awareness through WorkBC and home economics teachers.

How optimistic is Anderson? “I believe the talent in this room tonight is capable of doing anything that we set our minds to,” he concluded. “It’s my dream that Vancouver becomes the Silicon Valley of premium apparel and gear. The outcome will be a thriving and sustainable economy that will provide endless opportunities for a key industry.”