"With the continued growth of Hong Kong's clothing industry, apparel merchandisers have every reason to wear a big smile," says Chan Kwok-keung, who is associate director for training activities at the Clothing Industry Training Authority (CITA) and chairman of the Hong Kong Wearing Apparel Industry Employees General Union.
"If you look at the recruitment pages in the papers, you will probably find that merchandisers and buyers, especially in the clothing industry, are always in great demand," he says.
This is not surprising at all, given that Hong Kong is the world's second largest clothing exporter, after Mainland China. In the year 2002 to 2003, Hong Kong boasted more than 1,800 apparel manufacturers and more than 16,400 import/export companies. Together, they employ a total of more than 124,000 people with import/export enterprises accounting for about three quarters of the employees. During the same period, the export value of domestic clothing amounted to HK$63.9 billion.
"As clothing is one of our basic necessities, the apparel industry will always be there, as will the various functions involved, including merchandisin," Mr Chan notes.
"Certainly, the clothing industry in Hong Kong has undergone fundamental changes over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, Hong Kong had around 300,000 people working in this industry, but with the vast majority of the factories moving north, we now have less than 10 per cent of this number in the profession," says Mr Chan.
"For the decades before the mid 1980s, the textile and garment industry was a sweaty profession. Most of Hong Kong's workers worked on the production lines in factories, while the design and merchandising processes were done overseas. Now, with most of the production lines relocated to the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong's clothing industry employees have taken up much of the design and merchandising - the non-sweaty part of the chain," Mr Chan explains.
He adds that in the clothing industry, Hong Kong's competitive edge vis-a-vis China and Southeast Asian countries lies in merchandising.
"Hong Kong has a pool of very experienced apparel merchandisers who know the industry inside out. These merchandisers are indeed global leaders in terms of expertise-they have good business acumen, and are sensitive to international trends on the one hand, and local and regional needs on the other," Mr Chan asserts, adding that with the critical mass of expert practitioners, it is not difficult for new entrants to the field of apparel merchandising to find good teachers for study programmes and good mentors for on-the-job training.
Mobility within the profession tends to be high
One of the popular courses offered by CITA is the two-year Diploma in Apparel Merchandising.
"This is a very comprehensive course aimed at equipping students with the necessary merchandising techniques, a sound knowledge about fabrics, garment production, pattern making and fashion design. It also covers a host of other related disciplines, including cost accounting, marketing, information technology and import/export procedures. On top of these, we also attach much weight to communication skills, especially business English and Putonghua," Mr Chan remarks.
The entire programme consists of about 2,000 hours of training, of which 280 hours are in business English. "One should never underestimate the vital importance of communication in the merchandising profession," he says. "As the CITA diploma programmes require candidates to have a minimum of four passes in their Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination results, it is ideal for the batch of young people who are not particularly inclined to take a more academic route but are nonetheless eager to take the challenges of a growing profession," he points out.
He proudly notes that the programme produces about 300 graduates a year for the clothing industry, and the vast majority have been absorbed into the profession in the past few years. Even during the Sars epidemic last year, the graduates' employment rate was still close to 90 per cent.
On the job
"After successful graduation from the Diploma in Apparel Merchandising programme, our students typically join the industry as assistant merchandiser, reporting to a merchandiser. After two to three years, he is likely to be promoted to merchandiser himself, and in another two to three years' time, to senior merchandiser," Mr Chan explains. "Simply put, when he climbs up the promotion ladder, he will be serving larger and larger clients."
He adds that beyond the position of senior merchandiser, one could be promoted from a technical function to a management role.
"While the majority of Hong Kong merchandisers work for a manufacturer or a trading company in the clothing industry, there are some that opt for self-employment. You can set up a mini-business either on your own, or team up with one or two other merchandisers," he says.
"Mobility within the profession tends to be high, especially for young merchandisers. This is not unhealthy, and indeed this is a good way to amass a diversity of experience in the field. For instance, having handled woven fabric for a couple of years, a merchandiser may wish to join a company that deals in knitted fabric. Then again, a merchandiser for jeans may opt for another job that specialises in sweaters," Mr Chan says.
"Merchandisers need to handle a multitude of procedures, from receiving orders to making prototypes, and from sourcing to testing the market. After acquiring some solid merchandising knowledge and experience, merchandisers can even venture outside the clothing industry-into related businesses like toys, handbags and even wigs," he adds.
The route to success
- Don't underestimate the importance of communication
- Amass a diversity of experience in the field
- Be prepared to handle a multitude of procedures
- Be prepared to travel