Footwear Manufacturing Operative

The Job and What's Involved

Footwear manufacturing operatives are involved in making all kinds of footwear, including shoes, boots, trainers and safety wear. Due to a decline in mass production operations in the UK, most operatives are now highly skilled and produce footwear at the top end of the market, including handcrafted shoes. They may also be involved in repairing shoes.

Once the design process has been completed and a pattern has been produced, footwear production involves four distinct stages. Depending on the employer and the skill of the operative, they may be involved in producing the complete article, or specialise in one or two parts of the process.

The four stages are:

Clicking - the cutting of the pieces of leather or fabric for the uppers (the main body of the shoe).

Closing - the cut leather or textile pieces of the uppers are sewn together using sewing machines or hand-sewing techniques. Edge treatments may be applied to produce a more attractive look to the finished uppers. If necessary, eyelets for laces are inserted at this stage.

Lasting and Making - the stitched uppers are molded around a wooden or plastic foot shape called a last. Insoles, soles and heels that have been cut and prepared are also added at this stage.

Finishing, 'shoeroom' and Packing - the sole edges and heels are given a smooth and attractive finish, for example by trimming, staining, waxing and buffing, and the uppers are 'shoeroomed', for example by cleaning, spraying and polishing. Internal socks may be fitted and laces and tags are added. The shoes will then be checked for quality, packaged and boxed ready for dispatch.

All operatives have to work quickly and produce good quality items. Each process requires a high degree of skill and excellent knowledge of the processes used. A variety of machines may be used, for example cutting, sewing and polishing machines. Hand processes are also incorporated, including the use of a range of hand tools, knives, glues and dyes. Hand techniques may form the majority of the work in high-end, bespoke companies.

Footwear operatives may also be responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of their machinery and tools. This may include cleaning, sharpening and oiling and keeping the work area clean and tidy.

Operatives normally work between 37 and 40 hours a week, from Monday to Friday. Part-time work and overtime hours may be available.

Although there are some small workshops, most operatives work in factories. Changes in working practices mean that factories tend to be less noisy and better ventilated than they used to be, and many offer a well-lit, clean and pleasant working environment.

Operatives spend most of their time on their feet, working in a small team directly under a supervisor.

Protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles, face masks and ear protectors, is worn for certain parts of the manufacturing process, for example to prevent knife injuries and to protect the eyes and skin from glues and dyes.

Salaries for new footwear manufacturing operatives may be around £12,000 to £14,000 a year. Experienced operatives may earn between £15,000 and £22,000 a year.

With overtime and bonuses, an operative may earn £25,000 a year or more.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 1,000 people employed in the UK footwear manufacturing industry and 3,500 more are involved in footwear repair. The footwear industry has decreased in size over recent years. This is largely due to the increase in mass-produced imports that are manufactured overseas. However, there is a high demand for skilled operatives in this area.

The majority of footwear manufacturing companies are based in Northamptonshire and vary in size from around 30 to 400 employees, with other opportunities in London, Lancashire, and Leicestershire. There are a few workshops specialising in handmade costume footwear, and orthopaedic or high-quality fashion shoes throughout the country.

Vacancies may be advertised in local newspapers, Jobcentre Plus offices and Connexions centres. It may be useful to contact employers directly for work. The British Footwear Association produces details of its members on its website.

Education and Training

There are no specific academic qualifications required to become a footwear manufacturing operative. Entrants may be asked to demonstrate their ability to work with their hands. They may also have to pass an eye test and a medical examination.

There are opportunities for young people to train in this area as an apprentice within the Fashion and Textiles Apprenticeship Framework (footwear pathway).

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

Another potential entry route into this industry is through the 14-19 Diplomas, especially the Diploma in manufacturing and product design.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most of the training is carried out on the job, under the supervision of an experienced colleague, or by a training provider. Work-based learning qualifications are largely supported by the industry and operatives are encouraged to work towards these as part of their training. Relevant qualifications include:

  • ABC Awards Level 2 Certificate in footwear and leather (NVQ).
  • ABC Awards Level 3 Certificate in footwear and leather (NVQ).

Apprenticeships also include a technical certificate which can be studied at a provider centre or in the work place. Relevant qualifications include:

  • ABC Awards Level 2 Certificate in apparel, footwear, leather or textile production.
  • ABC Awards Level 3 Diploma in apparel, footwear and leather production.

Work-based learning will also cover topics such as health and safety, employer rights and responsibilities, the history of the industry, understanding materials such as leather, manufacturing techniques and treatments, the use of machinery and tools and quality standards.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Footwear manufacturing operatives should:

  • Be good at working with their hands.
  • Be able to understand written and spoken instructions and follow diagrams.
  • Be able to work quickly and accurately.
  • Be comfortable using hand tools as well as with new technology, including machinery and computers.
  • Be able to follow health and safety regulations.
  • Be able to pay attention to detail and understand foot shapes and patterns.
  • Be able to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • Have good eyesight.
  • Be able to work well alone and as part of a team.

Your Long Term Prospects

It may be possible for a footwear manufacturing operative to progress to a supervisory or training role.

Some may move into a related area, such as maintenance engineering, quality control, product development, production management, footwear design or retail buying. Further education and training may be necessary for entry to some of these roles.

Experienced operatives may choose to move into other types of manufacturing.

Get Further Information

BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd,
Leather Trade House, Kings Park Road,
Moulton Park, Northampton NN3 6JD
Tel: 01604 679999
Website: www.blcleathertech.com

British Footwear Association (BFA),
3 Burystead Place, Wellingborough,
Northamptonshire NN8 1AH
Tel: 01933 229005
Website: www.britfoot.com

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road,
London N1 9GB
Tel: 020 7713 9800
Website: www.skillset.org

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