In pandemic times, with large classes moved online and students trapped inside restricting accommodation blocks, the experience of many university courses is not looking so good. This coincides with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) telling us that by 2030 nine out of ten workers will need to reskill for new jobs ahead. The CBI is a non-profit that says it speaks for 190,000 businesses and its report was produced with research from McKinsey.

This uncomfortable news comes as the career paths for almost an entire generation appear to be drying up. Financial losses caused by the pandemic mean huge numbers of promised opportunities for school-leavers and graduates have been withdrawn, leaving them stranded and unable to find employment.

While the leather industry has been impacted, it has long been short of technical staff and other skills, and although in tanneries continuous training and retraining will be required over the years, the fundamentals of making leather with the correct aesthetics and performance does not change.

If there is one rewarding place where a young school leaver or graduate could build a great career, it is in the leather industry with the infinity of avenues that it can open. This career path will keep them occupied, fascinated, learning, travelling and creating.

As a modern high-tech material leather has a bright future
Leather has a great heritage, but as a modern high-tech material properly developed and marketed, it has an even brighter future. It is perfectly positioned to respond to the societal need to buy less and to look after and repair what we buy, to stop loading the atmosphere with fossil fuel sourced carbon dioxide, to increase productive, decent employment and diminish poverty. Through its biophilic and experiential qualities, it makes us all feel better. Not only is leather well placed for the future, so is our education, as long as we make use of it as an industry.

With the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) at the University of Northampton in the UK, the leather industry finds itself with a completely new learning centre with a new teaching tannery, laboratories, testing and research facilities, plus the amazing Microscopy suite named after the late Amanda Michel. All this on a new green Campus in walking distance of the town centre and station, with the ancient tanning town of Northampton being only an hour away from London by train.

No ridiculous huge classes; teaching and coaching staff who will know you and be interested to stay in touch after you move into employment; practical, hands-on learning combined with small group face-to-face teaching; and lots of opportunity to interact with industry. Without question, Covid-19 continues to have its impact on all this, but the fact that both the school and Campus is so new and well-designed means that most of the integrity of studying leather has been maintained, keeping the student experience and learning journey alive.

Improved job prospects
The list of available courses includes the full degree course along with a Masters and PhD research opportunities: it is superb that the leather industry is still able to maintain such a full set of degrees. But every attempt has been made to offer shorter and flexible study routes to suit a wide range of industry and individual requirements and their website currently shows a range of Certificates and Diplomas for undergraduate and postgraduate levels, together with training courses ranging from one week through to the three-month Professional Leather Development course. And finally, to meet our newfound virtual norm, an online training course covering the ‘Fundamentals of Leather Making’ is to be launched for January 2021. Any graduates from the courses have excellent future job prospects.

It may appear that learning about leather is not suited to the future world, but this would be wrong. Making leather and the industries that are closely connected to it from agriculture through chemistry, environmental management to design, automotive, footwear and luxury are as involved in the digital and automation revolution as any other.

Additional skills that will be required for a world demanding high levels of resilience are critical thinking, information processing, leadership and interpersonal and advanced communication skills. Studying leather-making and following a career in this industry offers the opportunity to develop and nurture all these areas.

What is clearly needed is to get the message out to young people around the world about these courses in the UK and in other leather teaching institutes around the world. This is a task the whole industry should be engaged in, and as Cotance showed with their career campaign a few years ago, it can also serve to help educate young people about the value of leather. And, finding and sponsoring students would be a very worthy plan.

Mike Redwood
October 21, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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