Spinning a New Thread for Northern Ireland's Textile Industry; the Textiles Industry Is Being Encouraged to Invest in Technical Development as a Means of Reversing Its Decline. but That Can Prove Difficult When There Is a Severe Skills Shortage in Northern Ireland. However, a College in France Has the Answer, as PAUL MCKILLION Reports

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Byline: Paul McKillion

TEXTILES in Europe has a very bad image, according to Audrey Stewart. The head of international relations at Ensait, the leading textile engineering institute on the continent, says there is a perception among young people that studying textiles is the "road to unemployment".

While the recent good news stories from the textiles industry in Northern Ireland (apart from Lamont's announcement last week to cut its ties here) means the reality is not that bleak, many local factories are still far from safety.

When Kurt Salmon Associates published its recommendations for the industry earlier this year, thousands of jobs had been axed and it was warned there would be more before the losses bottomed out and a recovery could be staged.

KSA listed key instructions to companies, critical to turning the industry around.

The export of higher value products, said the specialists, was one of them.

"The traditional dominance of contract manufacturing will decline in favour of more capital intensive and value-adding sub-sectors like technical products, linen textiles and branded apparel."

KSA said jobs will become more skilled, turnover per employee will rise, and successful firms should see themselves in the upper echelons of UK manufacturing companies.

But while the report urges companies to embrace technology, the depth of know-how in the local industry as to how to develop the product, manufacture it, market and sell it, isn't good enough.

Ensait caught the attention of Northern Ireland's textile industry three years ago when Ms Stewart contacted companies and industry bodies from addresses she found on the internet.

Linda McHugh, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Textile and Apparel Association, worked for the Irish Linen Guild at the time. She responded with an invitation to Belfast and meetings with NITAA and the IDB.

Interested in the proposition of students providing value-adding processes to their business, 13 directors travelled over to Ensait in February 2000 to see it for themselves.

Since then, firm relationships have been built between the college and the companies.

"The idea is that the students go into the companies to carry out a project and the results can then be used by the company. They are not gong in to discover the company.

"There is a predetermined project given to them by the company, with objectives to be achieved in the duration of a two, three or six month placement.

"The idea is they get results from that and the company can use the results with or without the student. Before sitting the Ensait entrance exams, students spend two years in scientific preparation courses including maths, chemistry and technology.

Once admitted, they study textiles and technology, as well as general engineering. There is a heavy emphasis on practical skills, with students spending long hours in labs working on spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing and finishing processes. …