Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

In 1990, when Nelson Mandela said that “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”, it was taken at face value as a universal truth, as was most of what he said. Since then, hundreds of millions have been pulled out of poverty around the world as access to education expanded. Incomes of families around the world improved as global GDP increased and education has changed the world for the better.

Education is a fuzzy term if you go past basic literacy skills. Recently, the drive was to push more and more young people through rapidly expanded university education. China has been the most obvious example of a country creating so many graduates that, as its economy slowed recently, graduate unemployment soared. Significant numbers of young people opted to “lie flat” or “tangping”, choosing to stop chasing the few existing job opportunities. Xi Jinping’s suggestion that unemployed graduates needed to “eat bitterness” by taking lowly jobs in the countryside did not go down well.

Tangping means to “lie down flat and get over the beatings” via a low-desire, more indifferent attitude towards life. In the current context, this refers to the choice to avoid overworking and overachieving in favour of taking it easy.

This is a global problem for which China merely has some catchy phrases. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair took the Mandela idea further pushing for 50% of all youngsters to take degree courses. On a trip I did to the British coastal town of Grimsby, dubbed as the capital of UK offshore wind power, I learned that their excellent local college had lost all their best intake, who instead went to distant new universities (often second rate) to study all manner of courses. Now with the support of the wind power companies, the Grimsby Institute is rapidly expanding their offer to cater for the new renewable revolution.

Training needs to achieve a better balance

In many countries, university degrees no longer offer graduates the benefits they used to guarantee. There is a realisation that training needs to find a better balance of vocational skills and higher-level learning, to become something more focused. Such a mix certainly better suits the wider leather trade.

An aging planet provides important context for all this. Although India has some growth ahead, it can already see peak population a decade or so ahead, but countries like Europe, China, Japan and South Korea are already watching the proportion of working people fall as their annual figures continue to count the same older people living longer and ever fewer new births.

How this new young labour is deployed and is willing to be deployed becomes of major importance. In the leather industry, consolidation appears to be well underway. That still leaves room for many individually excellent tanners, although the best are gradually sliding into the hands of the luxury groups. Certainly, cooperative working is important. A few forward-thinking tanners see opportunities for increasing future volumes by working with the better hybrid and biobased materials. Knowledge of non-woven material structure and all the specialist skills and equipment to give it performance and character means tanners have a serious offer for partners in adjacent materials.

This means three groups of staff will be needed. High-level well-trained management of various types, very well-prepared in-tannery production and technical staff and top-level research staff. We often worry about the lack of deep research in leather, yet the need for leather to pull forward to a new level, to work alongside many new biomaterials and to further advance its sustainability demands collagen expertise.

We must extend that long line of collagen brains that have given us names like Procter, Wilson, Gustafson, Brown, Taeger and Covington over the last 100 years. Does the industry feel the need to have top scientists who understand the inner workings of collagen, its chemistry and its architecture? This is not at all clear. The recent closure of the AAQTIC in Argentina, which the tanneries never seem to have been willing to support, will hopefully now be recognised as a warning sign. The industry must support its chemists and technicians if it is to survive and prosper.

In some ways, leathermaking might be considered an applied technology but its competitive position and advancement requires fundamental thinking and research. Without it, leather will be lying flat, like the underemployed Chinese students, demonstrating the involution of old age when organs shrink when they become inactive. A “tangping” journey that ends in a graveyard.

We should not ignore the one huge area where resources exist and the population is young and expanding, only damaged by bad politics and climate change. For the moment, adding value to make finished products has mostly meant chasing exports, but this has met struggles when fitting into the global trading system. The future is likely to be more self-contained, especially if Africa’s infrastructure can develop internally rather than try and live with the long routes to coastal ports built for raw exports decades and centuries ago. The making will be in Africa and the consumer market there will become immense too. We are already seeing that craft and design skills are abundant.

So the full mix of courses will be required with a heavy weighting towards basic training and apprenticeships becoming more popular, alongside technical courses in advanced countries. The portfolio of UNIDO free online courses via its www.leatherpanel.org portal needs to be heavily promoted as a great starting to point to help reach a widely dispersed and varied audience. There are many leather institutes, research centres and colleges throughout Africa which can become centres of excellence to drive the right training and retraining forward, almost certainly increasingly involving partnerships with other institutes. This should feed an exceptional dynamic and break down barriers.

Education might be nebulous and hard to define but, for the leather industry, it involves making leather exciting for the consumer and an exciting place to work; then imparting skills and knowledge, often (although not always) onto young people. And offering them great careers.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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