Competent Technical Designers: The Discussion Continues

— June 01, 2003

This article is a brief response to Eric Shurtleff's article, "Still Wanted: Truly Competent Technical Designers" (see "Guest Editorial," Apparel, February 2003). A common problem for many companies is finding detail-oriented technical designers, but as common as the problem is, there seems to be no standard solution.

For years, when we had a new hire - designer, merchandiser or engineer - and they did not understand how their actions affected the product and profit, we could walk them out to the sewing room floor and show them. Those days have changed for most of us. Now the sewing room floor is miles, sometimes worlds, away. Our industry counts on their experience, visualization and ability to foresee problems. As tech designers who have been trained on the job and in the plant advance in our companies, there is a dilemma when filling their jobs.

First, how do we attract recent college graduates to the non-glamorous world of tech packs and tape measures? As was noted in the Shurtleff article, many budding young apparel majors see themselves as the next Calvin Klein, not up to their elbows in sample garments and production problems. While there certainly will be a "next Calvin Klein," our need is more immediate in the field of technical design. At a recent American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) Human Resources Leadership Council (HRLC) meeting, the group's first Education Exchange provided an opportunity for human resources and industry professionals and educators with AAFA-endorsed apparel programs to discuss the issue of filling this difficult position. Shurtleff's article, released just prior to the meeting, helped to spur the discussion.

The HR professionals agreed that it has been difficult to find skilled technical designers, especially outside of the coastal metropolitan areas of the United States. A lively discussion ensued regarding what the companies were searching for and what the schools were teaching. How does a budding young designer go from thinking, "I want that button," to finding cost-effective solutions to ensure the garment makes the line? Is there a false stigma that goes with the technical design position? What competencies must be taught for new hires to bring the skill set needed? These questions can be answered. Most certainly the answers will come from collaborative efforts exactly like the exchange from this very discussion. For instance, following are some key conclusions that came from the exchange:

Educators need to consider adding or enhancing their curricula to include more on pattern design, not only to train pattern makers but to ensure that the areas of fitting, measuring and developing standards are fully explored.

Schools and industry alike must embrace technology, especially product data management (PDM). Spreadsheets are no longer an adequate form of communication and record keeping in a collaborative spec world. Yet if they have PDM software, schools often struggle to implement it because they may not have real-world information to fill the crucial PDM software databases.

The industry needs new minds that are Internet savvy and prepared to collaborate with sources in multiple time zones and cultures. Our world's political and health situations have many of us looking to technology as a substitute for foreign travel.

Apparel businesses need to step up to the plate and offer internships and/or co-op programs that provide applicable experience. Making copies and getting coffee will not meet the long-term needs. The industry should fund more fellowship programs for educators to offer first-hand experience in the changes that challenge many of our companies.

More school groups should visit companies to hear what it is like "in the real world," and more apparel company representatives should visit schools to talk with students.

Industry and education should benchmark with other industries to seek similar situations and solutions.

Together, the industry and educators can teach students what it takes to produce a garment on time and within margins. Neither wants to limit the creativity that young minds bring to the industry, but rather to focus that creativity on real problems. In the absence of technical designers, some companies have to rely on a combination of engineers, pattern makers and quality staff. It is much easier to measure the cost of not having a sharp technical designer than to measure the technical designer's contribution to the bottom line. The cost of missing details and late information explodes into missed deliveries, poor quality and potential chargebacks. A well-trained technical designer often can anticipate potential problems based on questions asked (and not asked) by a production source.

The general conclusion reached by the HRLC is that schools and companies need to communicate and assist each other with regard to the needs in the workplace. There is no substitute for ongoing discussion about curriculum. Based on industry needs and information, many of the schools endorsed by the HRLC have made excellent progress in the past two years in adjusting their curricula to more accurately address the needs of the technical design position. Schools such as Iowa State University, Auburn University, the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) and others are regularly placing graduates into retail, sourcing and manufacturing companies as technical designers.

While fine tuning is still needed to fully address the ever-changing needs of the technical design position, the industry is in much better shape today than it was 24 months ago, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated educators across the United States!

Bebe Purcell is senior business analyst, supply chain, VF Services; Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab is vice president of human resources, S. Schwab Co./LM Services LLC; Phil Freese is director of market development, American & Efird Inc.; and Jill Amidon is visiting assistant professor at the Department of Textile Products Design and Marketing, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Want to use this article? Click here for options! Copyright 2004 Apparel



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