Spanish footwear is experiencing a good moment. The national industry, established in the industrial poles of Elche and Alicante for 150 years, managed to survive, not without difficulties, the wave of relocations to Asia that took place at the beginning of this century. Also to the economic crisis and the consequences of the pandemic and global logistical tensions. But this situation is in danger. The lack of generational change is stressing the future plans of a sector that requires constant innovation to face competition from Chinese producers, whose low manufacturing costs continue to be the main threat to the sales of the national firms in the sector.
The great paradox of this crisis in the making is that it will take place in an unbeatable context: Spanish footwear exports reached record figures in 2022, both in value and in pairs. Sales grew by 22% and for the first time exceeded the barrier of 3,000 million euros (3,056 million). The pairs sold grew by 6% and touched 160 million units, so most of the growth is due to a rise in prices that companies link to inflation and better product quality. And there is still room to grow, because production is three points below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Valencian Institute of Statistics.
Precariousness drives away young people
This lack of manpower is due to several causes. Footwear generates 21,000 jobs in the Valencian Community, most of them in the Elche business park, where 70 factories and distributors such as Pikolinos, Panama Jack or Mustang are located, on which a large part of the jobs in the company depend. province.
But these jobs are held by people on the verge of retirement. The employment data shows how in the last decade, Alicante has doubled its number of employees over 55 years of age: from 115,000 to 206,900, according to the INE. At the same time, young people are not entering the labor market: the figure is lower than in 2013, when the economic situation was much worse.
Likewise, the macroeconomic data show a highly precarious industry: it is the industrial sector with the lowest remuneration —23,800 euros per year compared to an average of 39,100 in Spain—, lower productivity —27,600 euros per employee compared to 64,000 in the rest of the country— and higher labor cost per employee according to data from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism. This combination of factors is diminishing the growth possibilities of an industry that requires new ideas to compete in global markets.
Entrepreneurs change the chip
“We need to attract young talent and for this industry to be seen as an attractive sector to develop a professional career,” they confess from the Valencian Association of Footwear Entrepreneurs (AVECAL). The footwear industry as a whole has gotten down to work to try to solve this lack of manpower. The Valencian employers’ association has proposed to the Generalitat Valenciana the implementation of specialized branches of professional training that ensure a pool of artisans, and thus cover the vacancies and employability needs of Alicante companies.
Footwear has always been Elche’s leading industry, and the business community itself has begun to look for this talent in its own city. Together with the city council of the city of palm trees, the employers of the sector have launched a campaign to attract young people between the ages of 16 and 24 to present the shoe industry as an option for the future of work. His plans go through showing the footwear sector as a shuttle in order to obtain his first job.
Sustainability as a differential value
“There is a lack of qualified personnel and this is lowering the standards of Spanish footwear. If this type of work is not encouraged, China is going to keep the entire market. At this rate, Spanish footwear will come to an end if young people do not get into the cradle of footwear and aspire to become artisans in a few years”, says Hee Shoes, a women’s footwear factory and firm based in Elche. The company has focused its reinvention on the incorporation of young talent both in purely industrial processes and in its marketing.
“The young people who have entered the world of footwear are trying to give it a touch of novelty and freshness, because it allows us to give a differential point compared to what is imported,” explains Javier Bellot, an employee of the company. Hee Shoes, like many other firms, has seen a differential value in sustainability when it comes to producing and convincing consumers to buy their product. “In Spain we are concerned about the sustainable product to ensure that it has the quality it had before,” he clarifies.
“Footwear is a sector with a future, where the latest technologies are used and traditional arts are combined, but in which, in addition, companies favor the work, family and personal reconciliation of their workers”, they defend from AVECAL. Employers and unions closed a new collective agreement a few years ago that includes a 12.5% wage increase over the next three years to offset inflation.