Why Workboot Brands Are Worried About the U.S. Skills Gap

Across the U.S. economy, a growing labor shortage is having a ripple effect among a number of industries, from technology to retail. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings increased 0.8 percent in August to hit a record high of 7.14 million. And many experts predict the number could continue to rise in the coming months and years as jobs become more technical and specialized and the workforce ages.

Numerous employers are already feeling a direct impact in terms of hiring, but there is a secondary effect as well, for companies like workboot brands, which cater to employees in fields such as manufacturing and construction that are facing a skills gap.

Andrew Shripka, VP of marketing at Wolverine, explained, “Baby boomers are a huge segment of our population and make up the majority of today’s trade workers. The youngest, around age 55, are on their way out, and there aren’t enough younger people to backfill those jobs. If this continues, there won’t be enough people buying boots. Unlike some brands that you [continue to] buy when you’re 60 or 70, if you’re no longer working, you don’t need boots. And even if you do, you’re [likely] not going to wear them out as fast as you used to.”

Robin Skillings, director of global marketing at Keen Utility, said their team is targeting the next generation. “There is a growing gap in the skilled trades. [So] providing innovative safety solutions in footwear to new young talent is critical.”

She noted, however, that there are some bright spots in the labor market. “Support for building the country’s infrastructure will remain strong,” said Skillings. “It’s important for footwear manufacturers not to lose sight of the industries that play a role in the construction of roads, bridges, railways and transportation distribution. Supporting the needs of the workers in these industries is critical.”

To adjust to the changing work business, many boot brands are expanding their product offerings with more lifestyle collections.

“More and more people want to wear workboots in nonwork situations, and we absolutely want the market to continue to open,” said Mark Wachter, national sales manager at GVS America, the maker of Stanley and Helly Hansen workboots. “We will continue to seek materials that will give us lighter weights and greater comfort without sacrificing durability and protection. In reaching new markets, there are style elements that can be considered.”

Garrett McGuire, work category manager for Cat Footwear, added, “In an era when consumers are challenging the classic definition of what ‘work’ means, the industrial footwear industry must also adapt. At Cat Footwear, we will continue progressing with our consumers next year. We are spending more time with workers, learning from them and understanding the areas where we can challenge the industry norms, just as they do.”

And by broadening their selection to reach new consumers, brands are also finding more diverse channels of distribution.

“As the market opens, there are more retail options,” said Erron Sorenson, GM of North America for DeWalt Industrial Footwear. “We sell through farm and ranch outlets or athletic and outdoor stores. Our sales are about 80 percent brick-and-mortar. The problem with online is, a product description might say something weighs 400 grams or 12 ounces, but what does that mean to your foot? The feel of that weight is critical.”

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