HONG KONG'S garment sector is thriving, and offers a wide range of career opportunities for people interested in the world of textiles, fashion and design. 'It's a major misconception to think the garment industry is only about manufacturing,' said Philip Yeung Kwok-wing, executive director of the Clothing Industry Training Authority (Cita). 'Every year we observe an expansion of activities, and we want to tell young people, in particular, that it's here to stay.' The authority was established in 1975 and its original mandate was to train sewing operatives to work in local factories. But times have changed and with most manufacturing facilities relocated to the mainland the focus is now on training people for jobs at all stages of the garment supply chain, from clothing design and product development to knitwear processing, merchandising, quality assurance and marketing. 'There is huge demand for merchandisers and other servicing jobs, which are still predominantly done in Hong Kong,' said Professor Yeung. He said industry estimates suggested that local companies operating in the fashion and garment sector employed well over 120,000 people. And a recent manpower survey by the Vocational Training Council showed that another 3,000 or more would be needed each year for the foreseeable future. Cita offers several courses. There is a two-year full-time diploma for Form Five school leavers, with an option to concentrate on merchandising, or fashion design and development. The annual intake is about 50, and the course includes core subjects and electives in topics such as pattern-making, cutting practices and computer applications. Graduates have little trouble finding employment, typically as an apparel merchandiser, quality controller, sample co-ordinator or trainee fashion designer. There are also one-year part-time certificates and short courses for professionals already working in the industry. Classes are generally held two evenings a week. Invited industry experts do much of the teaching to provide specialist knowledge. Topics include dyeing, fabric structure, fashion brand development, garment washing and finishing. For a full certificate, it is necessary to complete six subjects, but students can opt to take one or two and will receive a module certificate for the ones they complete. The usual class size is 25 to 30, but for general courses, there can be up to 100. 'Much effort is put into the design of the programmes,' said Professor Yeung. 'There is still a huge demand among the working population to enhance their knowledge.' This explains the popularity of Cita's three part-time advanced diplomas, which are authorised by the Hong Kong Institution of Textile and Apparel. These attract close to 50 students a year, with students opting to study either the technicalities of knitwear, apparel merchandising and fashion design, or the accounting side of the business. 'To be a good merchandiser in Hong Kong, you need strong technical skills,' Professor Yeung said. This means not only knowing how to source materials, make up garments and test for quality, but also how to assess the impact different industrial engineering processes will have on costs. 'What we learn from our part-time students is that they really want to study the technical side,' Professor Yeung said. 'For their jobs, they must know how to eliminate faults in a garment and how to solve other production problems.' Computers now play a big part in the industry. In the design process, for example, the latest 3-D laser technology is available to scan bodies and calculate fittings. With this data, specialised software can generate made-to-measure patterns for use in production. 'The fitting aspect is very important for different body postures,' Professor Yeung said. Students, therefore, learn about 'typical' shapes and sizes of the clientele of different retailers and will use computer programs to complete their designs. 'Garments may seem low-tech but if you miss a label an order can't be completed on time,' Professor Yeung said. 'So, many organisations are now introducing enterprise resource planning (ERP) for production planning.' In view of this, Cita's services are also in demand as a consultant and to provide tailor-made courses for individual companies. These often show industrial engineers, factory foremen or production line supervisors how to improve the workflow or enhance overall productivity. Noting that all China quota restrictions will be lifted by 2008, Professor Yeung said there was big scope for development. 'Since we are not looking at Hong Kong in isolation, the sky's the limit,' he said. 'China is now very keen to develop its domestic retail market. It will become more sophisticated, so this is certainly one area we can take a closer look.'