After reading my book, people often write me to complain that fashion colleges don’t teach the necessary skills of manufacturing or entrepreneurship one needs to start their own line. Many feel that schools are not addressing the needs of students (or the market) by failing to do so. I think the latter complaint is more common lately. Increasingly students perceive their roles as consumers and feel that colleges should do more to meet the demands of customers. I see this as a conflict between two core problems, expectations and infrastructure. Before I forget, if you are considering attending a fashion college, do yourself a favor and read one of the best guest entries ever published on this blog called Which Fashion School Is Best?
Regarding infrastructure, it takes time for an institution to evolve to the necessary changes of demand in the marketplace. Aside from the obvious changes such as hiring new instructors, adding new courses and developing new curriculum, there’s other governance to which schools are held. The biggie is funding. Schools receive funding based on the number of students who successfully complete the program and by the number of students who get jobs after graduation.
Do note I said “jobs”. Herein lies the conflict of expectations.
Every academic program at an institution of higher learning has what’s called an advisory committee. The job of the advisory committee is to tour (often twice yearly) and review the course of study at the college and the work of select gifted students. This happens after hours so you won’t know it’s happening. Members of the committee confer with the professors and department heads to provide feedback on the quality and suitability of the content offered -as well as getting the heads up on the particular giftedness of a given student or students. Advisory committees provide consultation and guidance to schools. They often spearhead fundraising and support efforts as well. In other words, members of an advisory committee are the feedback mechanism, a form of quality control a school uses to define what it means to meet the needs of the community.
Members of an advisory committee are volunteers, most often business owners. Their interest in advising is altruism but also, they depend on the school to supply them with qualified workers. Here lies the conflict of expectations. Members of an advisory committee are looking for workers, not competitors. Therefore, there is greater focus on skills acquisition on the part of students.
The feedback mechanism to measure “success” is difficult for students who’ve enrolled with the goal of starting their own clothing line. Few students will return or make it known to the school that they’ve started a successful enterprise based on their experience at the school, or that they’ve hired X number of workers which benefits the tax roles of the community. In the challenging gestation of their companies, they rarely have the time to join the advisory committee themselves and if they did, they’d most likely be motivated to do so to find employees for themselves. In other words, even entrepreneurs won’t be motivated to help other entrepreneurs (potential competitors), they need staff. And it’s not that they are unkind or selfish people. One only has so much time. An entrepreneur is not likely to join an advisory committee to encourage other entrepreneurs until they’ve retired. And even then, they’re more likely to join SCORE.
If you are a student at a fashion college, I don’t have a ready pat solution for you. Perhaps a strategy would be to lobby the advisory committee to get support from them to discuss potential changes in curriculum. Perhaps you could form a fashion club and host a social for members. That would be interesting. As a committee member myself, I can tell you that we feel removed from students. It would probably surprise you to know that we think you don’t care about what we are trying to do for you or how we are trying to help you. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made suggestions and the professor has said you aren’t interested. We are active supporters of your program even if you have never met us. Maybe it’s time we did meet. It may surprise you to know that -from my perspective anyway- I think entrepreneurship coursework would be an easy sell to committee members. The reason is simple. If you have a better handle on what it takes to manage a manufacturing facility, you can only be a better employee. Your learning to do what we do is less of a threat than you think. We’re doing this. You’re not. If you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t know it’s much harder than it looks. If you understand the costs and the conflicts we face in managing an enterprise, you can only help us more. That’s why I think we should get to know each other a little better. So, invite us to meet you sometime. We’re looking forward to it.