By  on December 16, 2008

Job satisfaction has remained relatively steady in the apparel industry in the past year, but that hasn’t stopped a growing number of employees at all levels from testing the waters of the tight employment market.

In the second annual 24 Seven/WWD Apparel & Retail Industry Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey, 2,600 employees of apparel and retail companies, both public and private, responded to 57 questions covering job satisfaction and stability, compensation and even their emotional ties to fashion. The number of respondents more than doubled from 1,200 in 2007. Polling was conducted by Equation Research, and concluded in August before the full force of the financial crisis was realized — but well after concerns about the second half of the year had escalated because of higher fuel prices.

“The industry really started to feel a tightening and a retrenching towards the end of 2007,” said Celeste Gudas, chief executive officer of 24 Seven, which places full-time and freelance employees at fashion and retail firms. “The luxury sector aside, the industry has been going through consolidation for the last 10, 15 years and employees are pretty savvy about keeping their eyes, ears and options open. That just moved to the forefront when the economic calamity, so to speak, hit this fall.”

However, even during the summer, respondents were already feeling a sense of occupational wanderlust even as their sense of job satisfaction remained fairly high. In every category of the seven covered, more workers were searching for new jobs monthly or more frequently than was the case in 2007. According to the study, 49 percent of executive level managers were searching regularly, the lowest number among the seven, but up from 42 percent a year ago. Three-quarters of retail, e-commerce and store-level workers were searching regularly, the highest number registered and 7 percentage points above the year-ago level. Other categories more likely to be on the prowl this year than last were sales and marketing (69 percent versus 58 percent), design and technical development (68 percent versus 63 percent) and operations and information technology (66 percent versus 50 percent).

There was no corresponding decrease in job satisfaction levels.

Seventy percent of executive level managers were very or somewhat satisfied with their current positions, versus 71 percent a year ago. While satisfaction levels declined among operations and IT employees (to 62 percent from 66 percent last year) and among sales and marketing personnel (to 55 percent from 60 percent), there were increases among those working in design and technical development (55 percent from 51 percent), production and product development (54 percent from 50 percent) and retail, e-commerce and store level (53 percent versus 42 percent). Planning and merchandising employees held steady at a 58 percent personal job approval rating.

Job satisfaction was highest among those with 20 years or more in the industry (66 percent), while just half of those working less than five years rated themselves as very or somewhat satisfied. Among those with five to 20 years of service, the figure was 53 percent.

Since the full effects of the credit crunch began to be realized in September, Gudas said, the flow of résumés into 24 Seven has gone up about 30 percent, although the figure on the West Coast has been a relatively smaller 20 percent. “We’re just beginning to see an uptick in the freelance business, and I suspect that 2009 will be a very strong year in that area as companies look to avoid increases in their fixed costs and the concept of the expandable, collapsible workforce gains strength,” she noted.

However, the market for key executives — the so-called “game changers” — hasn’t softened at all. “For one thing,” the ceo pointed out, “the concept of brand building has become paramount and you need that top talent to produce that kind of product. Companies are still hiring, but they’re being more particular about who they bring on, more cautious about resources and budgets and also looking for more multifunctional, crossover people.”

But, among those who don’t qualify as “game changers,” Gudas’ advice is to be flexible, consider freelance opportunities and, wherever possible, “retool” through training, particularly when it increases technical expertise.

Apparel industry workers appear to be cognizant of long-term change and also concerned about its potential effects on them. Forty-one percent of respondents said their positions didn’t exist at their companies five years ago, a 2-point boost from 2007, but 19 percent said they didn’t think or weren’t sure if their current position would exist in five years, also 2 points more than in the last study.

What’s affected their jobs in the last five years? Nothing more than technology (32 percent), followed by retail consolidation (25 percent), manufacturer consolidation (20 percent) and outsourcing and operations moved out of the country (both 19 percent).

What’s likely to impact their roles in the next five years? Again, technology was the leading vote-getter (40 percent), followed by retail consolidation (31 percent). Rounding out responses were outsourcing (28 percent), manufacturer consolidation (26 percent) and operations moved out of country (25 percent). Last year, just 25 percent of respondents expected retail consolidation to affect their jobs in the next five years.

The most recent study reinforced a finding of its predecessor — that the younger workers were, the more likely they were to have gotten into the fashion industry because of their love of fashion — and took it to new heights. Eighty-three percent of workers under 25 said a love of fashion attracted them to the apparel business, versus 74 percent for those 25 to 34; 67 percent for those 35 to 44; 59 percent for those 45 to 59, and 45 percent for those 60 and over. In the 2007 study, the figures were 78, 72, 54, 48 and, surprisingly, 19 percent. “Great earning potential” was cited by only 23 percent of the youngest group, but every age bracket was within 2 percentage points of that number.

Looking at compensation, in descending order of mean totals, executive level managers earned $229,135, down 6.3 percent from the prior year; sales and marketing executives took in $104,643, up 1.1 percent; production and product development averaged $103,087, up 12.2 percent, and design and technical development grossed $103,052, up 13.4 percent. Averaging less than $100,000 were operations and IT personnel ($97,361, up 12.6 percent), planning and merchandising officials ($94,729, down 11.9 percent) and retail, e-commerce and store level workers ($74,100, up 2.2 percent).

The survey included mean and median salaries for individual titles, but in many cases the samples were too small to have statistical relevance.

“Business is still going to get done, but there’s little tolerance for error right now anywhere within an organization,” Gudas noted. “Consumers have definitely taken their feet off the gas pedal right now. They’ll still buy in 2009, but it’s got to be the right product with a very clear point of view.”

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