It was my pleasure as Sheriff to host a lunch in the Old Bailey with a small group from the UK leather industry. This industry is easily characterised as narrow and old-fashioned and of little relevance in Modern Britain. This is far from the truth. The material remains of major importance in footwear, garments, upholstery, gloves and bags and plays an important role in sectors such as luxury, automotive, fashion, sports and interior design. The UK retains a small number of globally leading tanneries and brands such as Mulberry, Dr Martens and New Balance who still manufacture in the UK. In the City of London there are about nine Livery Companies whose origins lie in the production and use of leather.
Our discussions soon found a focus on recruitment, careers and education. The leather industry as it exists in the UK today has an opportunity for further growth. The raw material – essentially cattle hides, sheep, goat and pigskins – is a by-product of the meat or dairy industries and is currently mostly exported or thrown away. The nature of the industry also means a regular supply of finished leather offers significant numbers of secure jobs in the production of a wide area of product manufacture.
The leather industry has worked hard on getting apprentice schemes and specialist training programmes working with considerable success. The Scottish Leather Group in Renfrewshire, Pittards in Yeovil and Mulberry in Somerset, who spent some years successfully expanding the workforce while dramatically reducing the average age, evidence excellent schemes.
But while making use of the recent government Kickstart programme for 18-24 year olds Pittards have been told that their experience of only 20 per cent retention is about normal. They are pleased with those who have stayed, but worried that so many who entered the scheme had little awareness of manufacturing and what it would look like when they first arrived.
The general feeling was that the education system needs to more carefully consider the opportunities to move through training into worthwhile employment for all levels of ability. With children from an early age being focussed on University this can exclude other immediate job opportunities and careers. The message in schools needs to change. This is not to gainsay that the leather industry does need more graduates and in the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) at the University of Northampton, the UK has a world leading teaching tannery, but it needs even more young entrants for a wide range of jobs at all levels, where skills will be learned and opportunities for advancement will exist. ICLT offers many short courses, and a new online short course, to support life-long learning at many levels.
Some employees are attracted by promoting the fashion or luxury aspects of leather , or by a “cool” brand like Dr Martens about which an excellent TV programme has recently been shown, but the wider leather industry was not seen as a good prospect by younger people or career advisors as it was often viewed as a sunset business. This needs to be countered.
The small leather glove maker Chester Jeffries from Dorset has recently announced closure based on an inability to find new staff to replace those retiring, and the UK was in danger of losing significant skills.
It was argued that the 16–18-year-old age group were being failed by the current system. Often young people appear to be steered only towards the more “high tech” or “advanced engineering” types of industries while what are thought of as more “traditional” industries are not considered.
It is clearly positive that over the summer the University of Northampton merged leather and fashion within the Faculty of Arts, Science and Technology. The University considers that linking science and technology with the arts is important and would prefer the push on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to now include arts and to be termed STEAM to make room for design and material science to link together in various ways.
The wider leather industry does have significant areas of advanced science through biotechnology, pyrolytic burning, multiple circularity streams, non-woven fibre networks, collagen chemistry and structures, fireproofing while making a material whose beauty is in the way it ages, and its patina when used in some types of product. Yet as a natural material its handling cannot escape the need for assessment by the human eye and hand and forming into articles by the attentive use of simple equipment like a sewing machine)
The modern leather industry does range from quite leading-edge product engineering to traditional craft with some glove companies, for example, retaining a facility to make gloves that are entirely hand cut and sewn and has traditional sectors making Goodyear welted footwear using oak bark sole leather tanned carefully for a year as was required by statute in the 17th century. Historical equestrian leathers are also still produced with a notable industry still producing in Walsall although the leathers are now more extensively used in the production of leather goods. Many luxury brands have evolved out of the equestrian and travel business.
Alongside this there is employment in engineering, testing, process auditing, environmental management and many areas of manufacture and design.
Such jobs should not be denigrated and considered inappropriate for today’s youth. They work at different levels from making more basic products, often in emerging markets, as Pittards are doing in Ethiopia to making the “cool” or luxury products in mature markets. It was noted how the footwear manufacture in Portugal has been growing since China became more expensive and recognised that leather footwear of higher quality could not be further automated.
City and Guilds, and similar Awarding Bodies, are important players in the training of younger workers, and while many of our political influencers and decision makers do appear to understand this, across the spectrum more has to be done to intervene and support them into suitable training channels.
Often the best of UK industry closely links design and craft with engineering as exemplified by items from the Olympic Torch to Morgan cars. While Government and other bodies should be pushing advanced technologies, they should not ignore the wealth of employment opportunities arising from older industries that have found a role in contemporary society. Leather remains relevant in many sectors from aviation, automobiles, sport, defence, luxury goods and fashion while leading back to being a useful way to use the hides and skins from our livestock industries.
Bearing in mind the location of the conversation (in the Old Bailey) it was concerning to hear of the increasing number from young age groups who are in the courts charged with knife crimes; if we could capture them early and direct them down appropriate routes, businesses like the leather industry is keen to offer them employment.