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The prestigious journal of the UK Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists (JSLTC) has unexpectedly become a battlefield over the value of consultants. This is a weird battle for an austere technical journal in its 104th year, but one that points to the changing role of technology and innovation within our industry.
Since leaving full-time employment many years ago and taking on a portfolio workload, I have always tried to avoid being called a consultant, as it is a term in industry that often comes with connotations of greed and incompetence. In the leather industry of 40 and 50 years ago, we used to see both business strategists and technicians regularly consulting. The former tended to be from major international companies and certainly caused resentment. They had little knowledge of the leather industry, made huge demands on tannery staff time, offered big picture solutions that were usually disruptive and, of course, charged enormous fees. The technicians by comparison were almost all retired tannery technicians looking to do a little work to improve their pensions and consequently set the standard for the low levels of fees that remain to this day. They were highly skilled technically, sometimes limited by their own experience and horizons, but rarely failed to add value.
Over the last fifty years, the leather industry has transformed, and the effective use of external advisers has played a big part. Tanneries do not have all the expertise they need in-house. In areas such as environmental treatment plants, general waste management, quality control, water and energy consumption, labour and community matters, compliance, innovation, marketing and computing advice from consultants has often been invaluable.
Over the decades, we have rushed through a huge range of management techniques such as quality circles, right first time, lean management and seen leather making impacted by environmental and scientific discoveries that led to the elimination of whale oil, many of our best dyestuffs, formaldehydes and a host of chemicals and some bactericides all needing time and effort to replace.
Concurrent economic pressures from globalisation meant tanneries lost their inhouse research teams (often viewed by the operating units as costly consultants) and most national research organisations were converted to private test houses. Chemical companies took over research but themselves became compromised by the high cost of compliance with new legislation such as REACH and the extra costs of servicing a global industry rather than one concentrated in the U.S. and Europe. Coincidentally, a lot of tanners had increased their reliance on suppliers by reducing their technical skills to focus more on maintaining high quality at scale.
In today’s business world, tanneries must seek out the skills and knowledge it needs in every area, from raw material through to end of product life from a mix of internal and external sources. Not all the requirements are totally new, but they have an intensity on a different scale from the past, and most are covered by legislation.
While tanneries will continue to evaluate the skills they need in-house or prefer to buy-in, there is no doubt that we will always need external experts. And one can see that with the pandemic pushing towards more flexible locations for work, and more part time employment contracts as tanneries fight for survival with diminished cash income, it is a role that could well increase.
The ongoing debate in the pages of the famous JSLTC is a particularly relevant one, but it is clear that whatever the definition of the consultant, the leather industry has a strong demand for expertise of all types in a very wide variety of roles. Technical expertise is particularly short, creating an opportunity for the industry to take advantage of the young people being left unable to find employment for their skills in the current difficult time.
It would be good if some of the influential members of the JSLTC and other senior industry executives could persuade their companies to expand apprenticeship hiring, support more recent science graduates who find themselves unemployed to enter the various courses on offer at the leading leather schools around the world.
When times are tough, we should try and invest more in the future, not less.
October 13, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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