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The battle for talent

Simon Cotton, CEO at Johnstons of Elgin, on why attracting and retaining staff is the new battleground for the knitwear industry in Western Europe.

10th May 2018

Knitting Industry
 |  Hawick, Scotland

Knitwear, Hosiery/​Socks, Knitted Accessories

Simon Cotton, Chief Executive at Johnstons of Elgin, on why attracting and retaining staff is the new battleground for the knitwear industry in Western Europe

In September 2017 Ryanair cancelled over 20,000 flights due to a shortage of pilots. The short-term issue was that there was insufficient holiday cover for pilots and a failure in their rostering systems, but this was the symptom of a longer-term shortage of pilots overall. The company has since stated it “should have treated pilots better” and should have anticipated the constriction in availability of pilots in the industry, which led to this issue within their company. It’s a dramatic example of the challenges firms are increasingly facing in attracting and retaining the right talent.

At Johnstons of Elgin we are defending a 221-year heritage of craftsmanship and skills at the very top of the textile industry. It used to be that the main battle was to win customers and keep the mills busy with profitable work. With the resurgence in interest in luxury UK knitwear manufacturing the challenge of attracting customers is less intense, but the challenge to attract and retain the very best staff is intensifying.

Simon Cotton. © Angus Bremner

Of course, our industry needs to train more people. After decades of downturn the current rise in demand has left the industry with an ageing (but highly skilled) workforce.  Although we all saw this coming, many companies simply did not have the cash to train youngsters. Even when we made free training places available to competitors, there was no take-up, as the cost of paying a non-productive trainee was too high. 

In the last four years we have put 100 people through the excellent Modern Apprenticeship program for textiles. In our knitwear mill this has involved young industry entrants being trained in a dedicated training facility. However, the ageing demographics of our industry means that retiral rates have doubled in the last few years and will now continue at that high rate.  With high levels of retirals, a lack of new trainees and an expanding order book there is now a “perfect storm” for the industry.

Johnstons of Elgin is a luxury Scottish knitwear and accessories manufacturer. © Johnstons of Elgin

There are many factors in maintaining our position and customer base. Naturally we invest very heavily in new technology and innovation to keep ourselves at the forefront of development. However, I would contend that those challenges are secondary and worth little if we cannot attract and retain the right quality of people. There are many causes for this challenging new frontier in knitwear competition.

The Johnstons of Elgin family

People have always been central to our organisation at Johnstons of Elgin. In the 1930’s, ES Harrison combined his passion for art with running the company and designed a new logo which placed a bee at its heart to represent the “busy” craftspeople.

Johnstons of Elgin as an employer is lucky enough to have over one hundred people who have given us 20 years of their working life. That’s an incredible commitment from them and a wonderful strength for us in terms of the skills and experience which are our life blood.

Johnstons of Elgin is defending a 221-year heritage of craftsmanship and skills at the very top of the textiles industry. © Johnstons of Elgin

We take training exceptionally seriously, with one hundred qualified Modern Apprentices (around 1/3 of the textile MA’s in Scotland) and a commitment that every employee should be on a continuous learning journey supported by their supervisor. We believe our commitment to continuous improvement must go hand in glove with a commitment to personal development which goes right across the organisation.

We also try very hard at communication. Formal means include “white board” sessions, team briefings, employee surveys and professional-standard newsletters. Informal communications include a generally open culture including coffees and chats with myself and the business owners. More important than talking, is really listening to all employees to try to continually make things better.

We are very much a “family business”. That’s not just because we are family-owned but also because, rooted in small communities, we have family relationships throughout our organisation. It also feels like a family, with a team of people who will do anything as everything for each other.

People have always been central to our organisation at Johnstons of Elgin. © Johnstons of Elgin

We rely so completely on these amazing skills of our people which allow us to make some of the most beautiful and creative textile products in the world. The quality of our workforce and our development of them is the one thing which will determine how good a company we are, in five years’ time.

Future Battle Lines

Supporting an ageing workforce

By 2020 the ONS predicts that 1/3 of the UK workforce will be over 50. We need to get very creative about how we engage that diverse and talented group of individuals. As individuals retire later and later they increasingly look to employers like us to support a more individualised transition. Passing on the hard-won skills of key retiring employees is particularly important and this works really well when an employee is also looking to reduce their hours, prior to retirement.

Encouraging new entrants

At the other end of the spectrum many of our recruits join us straight from school or university. We are engaging early with local schools in a very structured and pupil-centred way, opening pupil’s eyes to the endless possibilities of a career in textiles and supporting their transition into the workplace. Young people are also looking for greater flexibility and the introduction of sabbaticals has been particularly popular with young employees.

After decades of downturn the current rise in demand has left the industry with an ageing (but highly skilled) workforce. © Johnstons of Elgin

Flexible Working for Everyone:

Many of our employees work reduced hours already and I only see this increasing. For many of our 65%-female workforce and for many of our male workers as well, we can see that this kind of flexibility is a must. Wherever possible we offer employees flexible working patterns to enable them to work around needs for childcare, parent care, or simply a desire to reduce their hours.

Working conditions

Continually improving working conditions is critical. We all spend a huge amount of our lives at work and it’s reasonable to expect high quality facilities such as canteens and toilets. Working areas also need to be kept up to standard and ensuring adequate heat extraction in summer has been a recent substantial investment.

Ongoing training

The days when an employee could learn a single skill and expect to do that role for their whole career, are now long gone. We expect all our employees to be continually developing their skills and have structured processes to support this. For the right employees this makes their work more interesting and varied and ensures they are always relevant.

Linking high quality fine gauge knitwear. © Johnstons of Elgin


We do strive to always pay competitively, and we have been increasing hourly rates. We have also eliminated the piece-rates which once characterised the UK knitwear industry but deterred some new entrants to the industry.

Permanent recruitment

We welcome applicants at any time and if they have scarce skills we will often create a role which we haven’t advertised. This includes finding employees with key skills from around the world. Whilst the Scottish borders have an excellent skills base, we need to find people from across the world to be part of a world-class team.


Our ability to develop our people depends on how good our leaders are so we spend extra time in those areas. We have employed our own leadership development coach to help our team become better coaches and mentors and they all receive coaching sessions every six weeks on top of other training.

There has been a resurgence in interest in luxury UK knitwear manufacturing. © Johnstons of Elgin


I want the whole team to be excited and engaged in our journey and I take great pleasure when I see pictures of the latest catwalk shows featuring our products pinned to workstations. Simply making “the world’s most beautiful knitwear” products is hugely rewarding for most of our people.

People focus

I look forward to the day when there are as many business books on the bookstore shelves about attracting, engaging and retaining great people as there are on winning customers. I believe that business today is insufficiently focussed on its most important success factor.

The company invests heavily in new technology and innovation.However, still employs traditional manufacturing methods like these fully fashioned frames. © Johnstons of Elgin

As we move forward as the UK’s largest textile employer we will have to get even more creative and even more active in all these areas. The battle for talent is only just beginning and we are determined not to be on the losing side. We recognise we must pursue and evolve our people strategies with at least as much commitment as our customer strategies.

Further information

Anyone interested in a career at Johnstons of Elgin can contact the HR department on [email protected] with an up to date CV.

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