Labour shortage threatens recovery in traditional sectors

  • Lusa
  • 22 November 2021

A shortage of workers is threatening the recovery of Portugal's most "traditional" sectors, from textiles and footwear to construction and furniture.

A shortage of workers is threatening the recovery of Portugal’s most “traditional” sectors, from textiles and footwear to construction and furniture, in a problem that is not new, but which has worsened with the economic recovery after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, according to representatives of industry associations.

In comments to Lusa, the associations called for urgent policies to aid the hiring of professionals, so that the shortage of human resources does not jeopardise the economic recovery of those activities, along with campaigns to enhance so-called “traditional” sectors that are said to be affected by “stigmas” and “stereotypes” that make them less attractive to younger people.

According to Gualter Morgado, executive director of the Portuguese Association of Furniture and Related Industries (APIMA), companies are “struggling to attract talent, and there is a worrying ageing of the workforce currently employed” in these sectors.

“In addition to the current challenge, which has already led dozens of companies to refuse orders due to the lack of employees able to respond, we foresee a worsening of this scenario due to the inability to renew the current generation by young specialists,” he said, adding that “the difficulties are across the board” but with “particular incidence in positions that require some specialization, namely carpentry, turnery and upholstery, among others.

“The immediate consequences are the refusal of orders and new clients, which inevitably leads to constraints on the growth of companies and of the sector itself,” he said.

Morgado warned that in a phase of economic recovery such as the one currently underway, when the sector is once again promoting itself internationally in major international forums, “it is very worrying that, afterwards, contacts and order requests cannot be properly followed up.

“The sector has a very positive reputation globally,” he went on. “We are in more and more markets and we cannot waste this confidence that took us many years to gain.”

While he said it was “extremely difficult for a company to address and solve autonomously” this problem, APIMA lists actions that can be taken to increase the attractiveness of the sector, such as “investment in marketing, in modernising brands and the ability to communicate effectively the conditions offered and the progress made over the past few years.

“On a global level, we believe that there will have to be a concerted effort between the various players, starting with education,” Morgado said. “It is essential that the educational offer is adapted to the needs of companies, substantially improving the current relationship between supply and demand for talent.”

At the legislative level, APIMA has proposed some measures, including the rehiring of retirees, which believes that “will ensure, at least in the short term, a better response capacity for companies.”

In the footwear sector, too, “the shortage of skilled labour has long been a problem,” according to Paulo Gonçalves, director of communication of the Portuguese Association of Footwear, Components, Leather Goods and Implements (APICCAPS), who said that this had, however, “worsened in recent months, due to the significant increase in orders.

“The sector has practically exhausted the available workforce in areas of strong concentration of the footwear industry, forcing companies to hire new professionals in neighbouring municipalities,” he said.

According to Gonçalves, “there are several stereotypes related to the industry that must be fought [but] this will only be done if initiatives of large scale are developed to raise awareness among young people and their families.”

Citing data from the European Commission, APICCAPS points out that in fashion sectors, “five hundred thousand new employees will be needed in the next decade for the European industry to remain at the forefront.” That prompted the European Union executive to develop a specific campaign, in which the association took part, called ‘Open Your Mind’.

In the view of APICCAPS, he said, it is urgent “to strengthen communication with job centres, in order to identify unemployed professionals of working age” as well as “all training mechanisms tailored to companies, seeking to retrain workers” and conducting “broad-spectrum awareness campaigns to combat stigmas and preconceived ideas.”

Portugal’s textile and clothing sectors are also struggling with labour shortages, according to the Textile and Clothing Association of Portugal (ATPI.

“It is not, as one might think, a question of wages,” said its president, Mário Jorge Machado, but rather “a question of image” that affects all so-called “traditional” industries. “The sector was already facing labour shortages before the pandemic, especially in certain professions more oriented towards the production side, such as seamstresses or operators of some machines, or in production support, such as tuners or maintenance technicians.”

This situation has now returned with a vengeance “with the resumption of activity, aggravated by greater inconstancy and disruption in the supply chain and by the fact that brands are increasingly taking last-minute decisions, seeking ever-faster responses.”

Machado stressed that “these are professions that require a lot of professional training and only after several years and a lot of training and investment can we have competent, efficient professionals that bring added value to organisations.”

Therefore, he maintained, “vocational training should continue to be valued and promoted” and “everyone, including the government and the media, should make an effort to value the industry and its professions, in order to attract young professionals, rejuvenating the sector and attracting other equally important and essential skills, for example, for the climate and digital transition.

“It is important to make known to society, consumers and families, the innovation, R&D, technology, creativity that is present every day in our companies,” he said. “We have fantastic companies that win awards for innovation and sustainability, with excellent practices, for example, in terms of social responsibility, and this information ends up only being disseminated in a very closed circuit or not being known at all.”

Machado also said that the sector had increasingly resorted to hiring foreign labour, “which is increasingly available on the market and willing to work and to undergo the necessary training.”

The scarcity of human resources has also been repeatedly cited in recent years as a “serious problem” in the construction sector, following the departure of thousands of workers abroad during the last economic crisis, and currently continues to constrain the growth of activity, according to the president of the Association of Civil Construction and Public Works Industries (AICCOPN).

“In addition to the problem of raw materials, we have the serious problem of labour and I do not know which is worse,” said the AICCOPN president, Manuel Reis Campos.

Stressing that “the sector needs 70,000 workers” but “at the moment there is no manpower,” he questions why, according to official data, 32,000 construction workers are registered as unemployed.