Like many local industries, the textile and clothing business in Hong Kong has shifted from the previous original equipment manufacturing (OEM) model to today's original brand/design manufacturing (OBM/ODM). As it has become more cost-effective to relocate production lines to the mainland, manufacturers have focused their Hong Kong operations on handling design, merchandising, logistics and strategic management.
The signing of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) is, however, expected to create new business opportunities for the textile sector, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). And, while the effects of China's accession to the WTO and the relaxation of quota restrictions in 2005 are likely to lead to even fiercer competition, there is, nevertheless, a feeling of optimism about growth prospects within the industry and experts forecast a greater demand for merchandisers.
The responsibilities of the job begin from before a purchase order is placed with a manufacturer by an overseas buyer and, more than ever, market knowledge and communication skills are vital. "Merchandisers play a key role in understanding what is required of each product and must know how to add value," says Irene Chen, head of the Department of Fashion and Textiles at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE), Kwai Chung.
"Government survey results show that merchandisers and retail staff with higher diploma qualifications are needed," she adds. To meet this demand for well-trained professionals, the department introduced last year a three-year full-time higher diploma programme in fashion merchandising and retailing.
The new course will allow in-depth study of all subjects, says lecturer Dominic Yuk and give students all-round knowledge. His colleague, CM Li, says fashion merchandising is challenging because the work includes the management of quotations, supplies, logistics, marketing and product development. The programme, therefore, emphasises training in both practical and soft skills.
The department maintains close links with industry leaders to keep up with market trends. "We offer vocational training and understanding real recruitment needs is very important," Mr Li explains.
As evidence of this, the Apparel Product Design and Development Centre (APDDC) for SMEs, funded by the government's Innovation and Technology Fund is located at IVE, Kwai Chung. This centre, which is now self-financing, supports SMEs in product development and design solutions. Besides assisting SMEs, the APDDC benefits students because they can get involved as volunteers in activities which are directly linked to what is going on in the real business world.
Field trips, summer attachments and career advice are also made available. Mr Yuk says visits are organised to mainland factories to let students understand the manufacturing process in greater detail, while work attachments give the opportunity to develop personal contacts and gain on-the-job experience. If these attachments go well they are the ideal introduction to a potential full-time job after graduation.
Career talks also aim to provide the chance for students to meet employers and learn from them. "We set up mock interviews for students and explain about workplace roles and the sort of positions they can apply for," says Mr Li.
Final year students participate in an integrated project designed to showcase everything they have learned in the programme. This tests their communication and presentation skills plus data analysis and problem-solving abilities.
A part-time evening programme is also available and provides opportunities for further study for both mid-career merchandisers and those who have an interest in changing fields.
There are about 90 students for the programme's first intake and the IVE is planning a top-up degree programme for the first batch of graduates in 2006. This will be run jointly with an overseas university and Ms Chen says about 80 percent of the higher diploma students have already expressed an interest in applying.
Taking an up close look
Katherine Chan and Jessica Ho, second-year students taking the full-time diploma in fashion merchandising and retailing, agree the course has taught them far more than they expected.
Ms Chan says she was delighted to have had the chance to arrange an attachment with a Japanese trading company last summer. She appreciates the efforts made by the academic staff to fix things and believes this kind of opportunity greatly benefits students. "My employer was required to complete an appraisal form assessing my performance and I am glad to say I obtained a grade A," she says.
Besides that, she has participated as a student helper at a fashion show which took place at the APDDC and found it a similarly interesting experience.
Ms Ho also had a work attachment between the first and second years and, in her case, it was with a large-scale laboratory conducting product tests for various industries. "I learned many practical things and expanded my network of personal contacts while working there as a laboratory assistant," she recalls.
These two outstanding students regard the course's final integrated project as a challenge. Ms Ho says that, during the process of preparing for it, she has not only gained professional knowledge about fashion merchandising but also other soft skills such as setting questionnaires, interviewing and data analysis. Ms Chan has found that conducting detailed interviews has been the most difficult part of the project.
Both frankly admit they would have preferred it if the higher diploma programme had been available when they entered IVE. They have already expressed interest in enrolling for this programme because they believe that it will provide even more thorough training and broader experience for a career in fashion merchandising.
In mid-April this year, they will undertake a field trip to mainland China and visit one of the largest manufacturers based in Shenzhen. They expect to get a feel for the actual working environment in a textile manufacturing company and move one step closer to starting full-time jobs in the industry.