Textile firms co-operate to weave training

By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/25/2003

R

ecently, Gildan Activewear bought new machinery for its yarn spinning plant in Long Sault, Ont.

The investment cost $40 million. Each piece of machinery is worth between $500,000 and $700,000. One worker can now handle seven machines at once.

“That’s an investment of $3.5 million per job,” said John Saliba, executive director of the Textile Human Resources Council.

He brought up the example to illustrate how capital intensive the textiles industry, one of the world’s oldest, has become.

The textiles industry is one of the few in the manufacturing sector where Canada is competitive with the United States, said Saliba. But this competitiveness hinges on workforce know-how. With equipment and manufacturing processes continually upgraded, “the competitive factor becomes the labour force,” said Saliba. “Does the employee have the skills to keep up with the technology and to understand the importance of his particular job as it fits into the overall production process?”

Despite the highly technical nature of the industry, which produces material for anything from hosiery and parachutes to synthetic skin and oil-spill absorbing blankets, there was no educational university-level program in Canada at the time the sector council was founded.

Contrast this to the scene in the United States, where some 20 university programs offer bachelors of science and doctorates in textiles. The only formal textile education program north of the border was taught exclusively in French, at the college-level in Sainte-Hyacinthe, Que.

Responding to the challenge, the Textiles Human Resources Council has been pursuing an ambitious program to respond to the industry’s training needs. Its efforts have won recognition. The Textiles Manufacturing Basics program, a classroom-based curriculum converted to CD-ROM and then to Web-based format, won the Conference Board of Canada’s Learning Technologies in the Workplace Award last year and, more recently, a citation from the American Society for Training and Development. Its one-year management internship program was winner of the Conference Board of Canada’s National Partners in Business and Education Award in 2000.

It’s quite a step up from just 10 years ago, when two out of three textile companies had neither any workplace training nor any type of HR planning.

It all began with a needs assessment process in 1996, one which met with some resistance from the 12 companies that founded the council.

“People at the table were saying, ‘This textiles industry has been studied to death. We don’t need another one.’ But we convinced them that on the HR front, we needed an up-to-date picture because this industry changes so rapidly,” said Saliba.

The needs assessment exercise was seminal in getting CEOs to embrace training, said David Kelly, the council’s director of projects and strategic development.

“In the training industry, there’s a heck of a lot of people over-promising what they can deliver and telling CEOs what training they need without foundation. But when we came back with the information and said, ‘Here is what we found,’ they collectively realized that it wasn’t just a problem at their own plant,” said Kelly.

“A lot of times, when recruitment is tough, the easiest thing is to go down the street and try to recruit someone else. But the biggest thing the CEOs realized was this was a problem right across the board, so you can’t solve it by going to the next town to look for those skills. They realized that those skills don’t exist, period. So it was a catalyst for much deeper thinking on the topic.”

When the assessment was completed, added Saliba, “we did something that was unique at the time, which was to tell people that we would submit our findings to our board of directors at a dedicated meeting. We told them — and again, I want to stress that these are CEOs — they had to come to the meeting and devote the better part of the day and tell us what they thought of the findings. And lo and behold, everybody came.”

Everybody meant both CEOs and union representatives, who have an equal number of seats on the board. They decided that their first four priorities were improving essential skills (meaning literacy and numeracy), improving technical skills, improving the industry’s image and fostering a culture of training.

The first program to get underway was a Textile Management Internship Program, aimed at giving science and engineering graduates a one-year placement where they would learn about the textile industry. Teaming up with McMaster University’s Faculty of Management in Hamilton, the program also trained science and engineer workers in management and supervision skills. Some 50 new grads have taken part since the program’s inception in 1999, and all found placement after their internships.

Next on the slate was the Textile Manufacturing Basics program, which came out of a classroom-based curriculum that Hafner Inc., a Granby, Que.-based manufacturer, was already using to train its 500 employees. Through constant updating and revision, the Hafner curriculum stayed current and relevant. However, getting employees to attend classes was a problem due to the shift-work schedules. Looking for a partner to convert the training into electronic format, Hafner offered up its curriculum for use by the entire industry.

Kelly, who oversaw the conversion of this material into a technology-based training program, kept going back to industry representatives to make sure the content reflected the manufacturing processes across the board.

“It required a lot of co-ordination of all the people we were sending this out to. Of course this was not their first job, so we had to stay on top of them, constantly. You know, ‘Could you please get this to us by Friday, and could you have your vice-president look at it,’ and of course the VPs had 90 other things to do that day, and they were generally not working out of an office, they were moving from plant to plant. The fact that so many people did look at it showed to me the level of commitment in training and development that never existed before,” said Kelly.

“When I talk to friends in the U.S., they’re amazed at what has been achieved. CEOs wouldn’t have been able to do it on their own. It costs too much to do, and CEOs see it as too labour-intensive.”

The resulting manufacturing basics e-learning program covers about 90 per cent of the textiles manufacturing processes. Used by workers as well as innovators, the program is written in seventh-grade English and French so as to reach all audiences.

Unique in the world, the program is now sold in 30 countries. The council is working on training programs on other major manufacturing processes, from fibre and yarn manufacturing to fabric formation and finishing. To help companies deliver the training to the shop floor, the council is also equipping the plants with on-site facilities where workers can sit down at a computer to do go through the training.

There’s still a lot of work ahead, but Kelly is confident that the Textiles Human Resources Council is showing that e-learning can work in a traditional manufacturing industry.

The key is to have industry involvement. At the textiles sector council, CEOs have to attend the directors’ meetings.

“They’re not sending their assistants’ assistants. Because if you don’t have CEOs at the table, if the CEOs aren’t convinced, then learning isn’t going to happen at the workplace. And that’s what this is about, it’s about exposing CEOs to the material so that they can make an educated decision on the importance of learning in the workplace.”

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