Her fear is increasingly apparent in all our education across the world, including Higher Education at universities. In these complex economic and political times, all parties, including students, see education as job training, a dedicated preparation for a career. When I was teaching management part-time recently at a top European University, I was increasingly expected to provide “the right answer” for problems that had no right or wrong answers but required a systematic approach and level-headed judgment. The “right answer” was seen as the route to a high mark and better employment prospects.

The pressure to force young people to take career decisions early on, to limit their horizons by forcing subject specialisation early in life and to measure the value of many courses primarily in terms of employability has hugely increased in recent years. To be pulled up by a young woman like Tara Westover who had no formal schooling, very little informal either, sat in her first classroom when she was 17 and yet achieved a Cambridge PhD is timely for us all.

There is a balance to be struck between everyone learning the classics and having enough plumbers and joiners, and it is self-evident that we need vocational training in many spheres, including leather. It is fairly easy to find lists of jobs that have become obsolete over the last fifty years, and it is clear that this will continue relentlessly. Because leather involves luxury and craft aspects, it is essential many activities and processes will be retained, but a look in any modern side leather tannery today highlights the huge changes in material and chemical handling that must and will continue to happen as safety and quality are given priority.

For this to continue, our industry is adapting to the need for lifelong learning. My own career has seen me move from technician into marketing, and in retirement to part-time teaching and consulting. Many of my contemporaries who started on the factory floor have graduated into general and top management, usually after some extra training in areas such as finance or leadership, or perhaps an MBA.

Others have taken an even more specialist route and chosen to study areas like surface chemistry or fire retardancy. In terms of more basic training, UNIDO have started to produce an excellent series of online courses for tannery and footwear staff https://leatherpanel.org/e-learning.

Given the massive arrival of online working and training that has been created by the pandemic, this area is only likely to grow in the future and offers high levels of accessibility to previous disadvantaged groups at all levels. It has been said that those who are passionate about a subject will always find a way to learn about it, and there is no doubt that most people involved in leather have this passion for the material. Working with leather is more than merely an income for most.

The science is of no value if the aesthetics are not understood
The arrival of new online courses, with many being offered free of charge or at very low cost, also means that studying subjects that are less directly related to everyday work requirements is easier. With longer working lives ahead, and even more changes in the nature of work, getting the balance right between specialist and generalist, between science and art, will become impossible. Leather lives in that space where the science becomes of no value if the aesthetics are not understood.

At that stage, Dr. Westover’s thought process that education should be less about putting facts into our minds and more about pulling out or nurturing than merely instruction and tuition starts to come to fruition. Such citizens offer tanneries employees and customers who are more likely to appreciate the value in a piece of leather, as opposed to the cost of a piece of plastic.

Mike Redwood
February 17, 2020


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