The long chain of employment from raw material to finished consumer for leather is a little different. The administration and office functions have indeed been transformed and bucket chemistry plus wrench and hammer maintenance has thankfully been replaced by well managed science and precision engineering. Yet, the underlying craft of making leather and leather products has been retained and remains a key element in the core nature of leather and its role in fitting into modern urban life.

The biophilic aspects of leather, like wood and wool, are becoming vital to help us live in a constructed urban world of glass, metal and artificial light. The aesthetics of looks, touch and smell are increasingly important, even with performance leathers. It may get classed as “experiential marketing”, but in reality leather helps people feel at ease, reduce depression and live more contentedly in this alien world we have built for ourselves. With urbanisation on the agenda as an ambition related to growth and development for many countries, it will only get worse.

Leather needs scientists, engineers and artists
This means that the leather industry needs a very wide range of employees covering scientists, engineers and artists to develop the leather craftworkers of the future. And a lot more of them. The withdrawal of expertise from brands and retailers in recent years to be replaced by bureaucrats working with audits instead of knowledgeable personal visits has not been a progressive move. To have value audits must be supplemented by inspections from trained staff.

For some years we have complained that recruitment has been a problem. Perhaps despite the horrendous issues the industry is facing, now is the moment. In much of the world our schools, colleges and universities have been closed mid semester and students sent home. I have watched from a distance as the School of Management at the University of Bath rushed to put teaching and exams online. The students are from all round the world, a lot from China. I helped with a few classes last semester, so know some of them doing group work remotely from different countries, classwork and exam preparation. The execution has been excellent, but it means they will finish their studies from home and be in the wrong place for the intense recruitment and job search period.

I am sure Bath is only one of many who have managed exceptionally to help their students make sense of all this turmoil. Many at Bath have their career moves already decided and employers agreed as the university/industry links are very strong. But not all, and around the world I hear of many school leavers and college graduates who are fearful that they will be trapped at home and unable to access the employment market. Given that the cash and business issues ensuing from the current crisis will reduce recruitment dramatically, this will likely be a catastrophe for a generation. It is well researched that a bad start to a career has a damaging lifelong impact.

So perhaps, despite leather being beset with exactly the same problems, with many fighting for survival, the stronger companies amongst us might be able to think longer term and hire some superb new recruits whose appreciation and commitment can be assured. A chance to play a small part in helping a generation that is likely to suffer and recruit youngsters who understand how leather will fit better with the present and the future, and how we need to keep advancing.

The leather industry is one that will endure, although we will be changed by this. We still offer that rare opportunity of a good career for staff who join, keep being trained and stay. Long term careers with the same company are good for the stability of individual lives and for the society we live in. And from those who create a beautiful consistent material from a highly variable renewable natural material grown with fresh air, grass and rain, to those craftworkers who build our seats, bags and garments, the diversity of opportunities are immense.

Mike Redwood
April 8, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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