How fashion can build its own technical talent pipeline

By early 2023, several Nordstrom executives will have added a new title to their resumes: College Curriculum Writer.

Over the past year, a handful of managers and technologists from the department store have worked with professors and faculty at Morehouse College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Atlanta, to design a set of product management courses that will be offered at the start of school in January .

For Nordstrom, the goals of the program — a new curricular track for the college sponsored entirely by the department store — are twofold: increase employee diversity and recruit more, and better prepared, tech talent in a historically challenging area for fashion.

“One of the gaps we see in academia is that there just aren’t many universities that teach product management,” said Jessica Agahi, Nordstrom’s vice president of product management. “These are lucrative careers for students coming out, and we’re having a hard time getting talent.”

For decades, fashion companies have struggled to compete with tech giants to attract professionals who can help them keep up with an increasingly digital world where e-commerce websites and mobile apps are expected to run flawlessly. Few retailers can offer the lucrative benefits packages and fancy perks dished out by startups, or match Silicon Valley’s salaries and signing bonuses. Lately, they’ve also been recruiting to find developers to outfit 3D avatars for the metaverse.

Over the past month, a wave of layoffs across the tech industry — including at Microsoft, Twitter, Meta and Salesforce — has signaled at least a temporary pause in big tech’s decades-long hiring spree. Job cuts in November alone mean that around 51,000 technical workers are out of a job, per laidofferte.fyi.

Whether those workers will give retail a shot remains to be seen, but the technology sector’s volatility opens up the opportunity for fashion companies to better negotiate for talent, experts say. Still, rushing to acquire many experienced technicians may not be the most efficient way for many fashion companies to increase their product innovation.

Today, when fashion companies are able to land tech talent, they often choose from a non-diverse candidate pool—for example, only 8 percent of the U.S. tech workforce is made up of black technologists, according to Brookings research—for whom fashion can be an afterthought . Also, many of the areas where fashion products and processes need the most attention and innovation – such as sustainability and the metaverse – are still very nascent, meaning there is a lack of deep expertise in the first place.

The solution, say experts, lies at the very beginning of fashion’s talent pipeline.

“Often, fashion programs are a little behind what’s happening in the industry,” said Jessica Couch, co-founder of retail technology research firm Fayetteville Road and curriculum advisor for fashion technology programs at Cornell University and Parsons School of Design. “And now that technology is catching up, it’s hard to really find the right curriculum to give students.”

The professionals who will design innovative products for fashion companies – in areas such as merchandising, customer experience and order fulfillment – ​​need academic and professional training that cuts across a range of disciplines. Many colleges and businesses have failed to connect the dots, especially when it comes to showing those in non-fashion programs (such as engineering, business and computer science) the breadth of opportunities available to them in the industry.

“This is the first step in making sure you have an institution where students are learning about this and are prepared to go directly into these roles,” said Kinnis Gosha, executive director and director of research at the Morehouse Center for Broadening Participation in Computing who will help oversee the Nordstrom-sponsored courses at the college. “It has been [challenging] because a lot of this is very interdisciplinary.”

The Nordstrom and Morehouse partnership will offer courses such as Computing Career Exploration and Intro to Tech Product Management, and will feature the department store’s executives and managers as regular guest speakers and “mentors,” the company said. Part of the program’s curriculum will include a visit to a local Nordstrom store where students will see “how technology is integrated into the everyday shopping experience,” Gosha said.

While the classes will be taught on Morehouse’s campus and led by the school’s faculty — in areas such as computer science and engineering — students from more than a dozen schools that comprise the Atlanta University Center Consortium (including HBCUs Spelman and Clark Atlanta University) and the Atlanta Regional Council of Higher Education (including Emory University, Georgia State University, and Savannah College of Art and Design) may apply.

However, the decision to have the program sit on the campus of an HBCU is crucial for several reasons. First, it signals a long-awaited recognition by fashion companies of the value of black students beyond purely creative roles. And perhaps more than that, it represents a step change in how businesses engage with students in predominantly black schools.

“A lot of companies come to Morehouse to recruit our best students, but they don’t want to build partnerships with us,” Gosha said. “But this is a real partnership and we talk about the issues and [Nordstrom] actually listening.”

In order to get the most out of a new academic program that combines several disciplines – with technology at the center – it is important that industry leaders and university professors have an open mind about everything from the expectations of the students to what is required for and from the courses.

Fashion industry leaders need to do their part to break down stereotypes “that equate retail with what you see at the mall,” and they need to challenge their own assumptions about what kind of person is best suited to work in their technology departments, said Kyle Rudy, senior partner at the recruiting firm Kirk Palmer Associates.

For example, organizational diversity is a critical factor in driving product innovation, but fashion companies will miss the mark if they fail to appeal to minority students or, in programs like the one at Morehouse, are unable to help students major in STEM (science ). , technology, engineering and mathematics) see the fashion industry as lucrative and stable, he said. (It remains to be seen whether recent tech layoffs will disrupt the narrative that technology is a safer career path.)

“What I’ve seen is that when we go into the HBCUs, students often feel pressured to go into STEM, even though they may be passionate about something more creative,” Couch said. “What we’ve learned from talking to students is that there’s not a ton of awareness that you can have a STEM-based creative career.”

It is equally important for instructors and industry professionals to shed assumptions and deeply held biases about the appetite and aptitude of black and other minority students when it comes to technology-based careers and skills, said Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row.

“Black students are actually far more technologically advanced than I think businesses realize,” she said. “The innovation is there at HBCUs, but so many companies don’t tap into it because it requires them to build a relationship with students.”

Since interdisciplinary capabilities and pathways like the one being developed by Nordstrom represent uncharted territory, industry professionals must be careful not to “teach students” and be open to learning and listening, Couch said.

“A lot of these programs use the traditional method of ‘I’m just going to give you knowledge in one direction,'” she said. “When this happens, they miss out on the talent, creativity and information that the students have … you need professionals who can guide students, but don’t limit their creativity.”

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