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Looking for needles in a haystack

Garment sector can't find workers

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ALTHOUGH the Manitoba garment industry has shrunk dramatically in the past 15 years, the remaining local producers face an unusual challenge -- they can't find enough skilled workers.

Len Hirsch, owner of Saxon Leather, is at his wits' end trying to fill as many as 10 positions.

"There is work here for domestic manufacturers, but we can't get people," Hirsch said.

Saxon has been in business 65 years and Hirsch said he believes it's the only shop between here and Toronto still making leather jackets by hand.

"We are importing product, but I don't want to. I love the craft of manufacturing," he said. "It's in our blood. We want to keep it up."

In the past, the garment industry was one of the first sectors to use the provincial nominee program and brought in immigrants with specific skills.

Not so long ago, the industry association, the Manitoba Fashion Institute, ran sophisticated training programs.

Now, higher-paying industries dominate the nominee program and the MFI has long since disbanded.

When Hirsch called the province for advice or assistance, he was told to call the Job Bank. The database of Canada-wide job postings has not been much help for Saxon Leather's search for skilled sewing-machine operators.

"I'm convinced they're out there," Hirsch said. "There are still good makers in Winnipeg that need good people."

The industry's conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that even the highest-skilled sewers -- the only kind Hirsch and others are interested in -- are among the lowest-paid in the manufacturing sector.

It's a much different landscape for an industry that 15 years ago employed about 5,000 people in the province.

A number of factors conspired since then to wipe out about 4,000 of those jobs. The increased industrial capacity of low-wage jurisdictions in Asia and elsewhere in the world, combined with the strengthened Canadian dollar and an end to import quotas on apparel in 2005, drove the vast majority of production offshore.

There are only a handful of companies left in Winnipeg that can boast a workforce even close to 100, including Richlu, Peerless Garment and Freed & Freed.

You might think since so many sewing-machine operators lost their jobs, there should be skilled workers around to fill current demand, but that is not the case.

"There's not many of us left, but we're all having the same problem," said Albert Eltassi of Peerless Garments.

Many of the former garment workers were retrained and migrated to the health-care industry, where the aging population has created greater demand for services.

But there remains a profitable premium in some niche markets for made-in-Canada apparel.

High-end Toronto-based outerwear manufacturer Canada Goose is one such domestic company that has kept all its production at home. It employs more than 100 people in Winnipeg at the former Engineered Apparel plant it acquired last year. But it, too, has trouble finding enough skilled workers in Winnipeg.

So while human development resources were once abundant for the industry, companies now must do in-house training, which is expensive and risky for a mobile workforce.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2012 B4

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