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Leather and Shoe Industries Job Descriptions, Careers in the Leather and Shoe Industries, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Leather is animal skin that has been preserved and treated. It is used to make products, including sporting goods, handbags, suitcases, belts, gloves, coats, upholstery, and saddles. However, most of the leather manufactured in this country is used to make shoes. Many different kinds of animal skins or hides are used. Small animals, such as goats and sheep, are said to have "skins," and larger animals, such as cattle and horses, are said to have "hides."

There are leather tanneries and shoe factories throughout the country. The greatest concentration can be found in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

More than half of the employees in these industries are production workers. An increasing amount of the work in these industries is done by machines. Workers with various levels of skill and training are needed to operate these machines. This industry profile covers all processes of shoe manufacturing—from treating the skins to final polishing. Many of the processes described here apply to all leather manufacturing and to all shoe manufacturing, including the making of shoes from synthetic materials. The occupations mentioned here give some idea of the many kinds of workers employed in the leather and shoe industries in general.

The processing of leather begins at the slaughterhouse. After the animals are killed and skinned, their skins are generally cured by being placed in a salt bath for a few weeks. This treatment keeps the skins from rotting. The slaughterhouse then ships the cured skins to a leather tannery.

Several different workers process the skins in the tannery. There are many steps in the manufacture of leather, and each worker usually specializes in just one part of the process. Trimmers remove parts of the skin that cannot be used and cut cowhides in half. Sorters separate the skins and bundle them according to their quality and intended use. In the department known as the beamhouse, the skins are washed and soaked in solutions that clean and soften them and loosen the flesh and hair. The flesh and hair are then removed with special machines operated by fleshing and unhairing machine operators. Sometimes chemicals are used to destroy the hair. The final bits of hair and dirt are removed by a process called sudding. Workers known as beamsters do this job, either by hand or by machine. Then, workers place the skins in another chemical bath to prepare them for the actual tanning.

More than half of the workers in the leather and shoe industries are production workers who operate machines. This worker uses a machine to fit leather shoe uppers over forms that are made in various shapes and sizes to match human feet. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

The purpose of tanning is to make the skins pliable, attractive, and resistant to water. There are several kinds of tanning processes. One of the most common processes uses salts made from the metal chromium. Another method, vegetable tanning, uses tannins, which are substances extracted from roots, wood, bark, leaves, and other kinds of vegetable matter. Many leathers are tanned by a combination of processes. Tanning often involves moving the skins from one bath to another. The length of time needed for tanning varies depending on the method used. It can range from a few days to a full year. Several different kinds of workers are employed in the tanning process. They include tanning solution makers who prepare tannic acid using vegetable tannins, operators who are responsible for checking the machinery and instruments used in tanning leather, and haulers and laborers of various kinds. The tanned leather is washed, and the wrinkles are removed. It is also put through a machine that splits or shaves it to make it uniformly thick.

Next, the leather is oiled and dyed. The oil replaces the natural oils that were removed during processing and keeps the leather soft. Oils of various kinds are applied by hand, by soaking, or by tumbling in heated drums. After the skins are oiled, stakers stretch them on machines to make them soft and pliable. Many kinds of dyes are used to color the leather. They may be brushed, sprayed, or squeezed onto the skins, depending on the desired result. Oiling and dyeing are often done in one process.

The leather must also be dried. There are several ways of doing this. In one common process, the leather passes through a tunnel of warm, dry air on a board or glass plate. Drying tunnel operators are responsible for this process.

Finally, the leather is ready to be finished. This is usually done by finishing machine operators, although hand finishers still do some processes. The type of finishing process and the workers needed depend on the specific kind of leather being made. Glazers, for example, make some leather shiny by running it through a glazing machine. Patent leather is made by machine operators who apply lacquer to leather then bake it. Still other leathers are brushed to give the velvety finish of suede. After the finishing step, the leather is inspected, graded, and packed for shipment to shoe factories and to other kinds of manufacturing plants. When the leather arrives at a shoe factory, sorters examine it and grade it for their own use. Patternmakers transform the original design for a boot or shoe into a pattern. In the cutting room, clicking machine operators and hand cutters cut the leather according to the pattern. Today, computer-aided design systems computerize data that can be used to cut patterns and dies and to operate computer-aided manufacturing systems. If any decorative stitching is to be done, prefitters mark the leather. Perforators run machines that punch holes to decorate the leather. Skivers run machines that taper the edges of the leather pieces. In the stitching room, the different parts are sewn or cemented together by sewers, fancy stitchers, cementers, and vampers.

At this point, the shoe uppers—the tops of the shoes—are sent to a lasting room, where various workers fit the leather uppers over forms called lasts that are made in the various sizes and shapes of the human foot. Pulling-over machine operators stretch the leather over the lasts so that it does not wrinkle. The leather is then steamed and left to dry. When the uppers are dry, they are sent to a bottoming room, where soles that have been cut to size by dinking machine operators are attached to the uppers by cementing, stitching, or some other method.

In a department known as the making room, the shoes are completed by sole layers, edge trimmers, heelers, and burnishers. Then, the shoes are sent to the finishing room, where polishers stain, wax, and polish them and singers burn off any loose threads. Other workers add laces, buckles, or trim. After a final inspection, the shoes are packed in boxes. They are then ready to be shipped to a shoe store.

Education and Training Requirements

Many jobs in the leather and shoe industries have no specific educational requirements. However, most employers prefer to hire high school graduates. High school courses in machine shop are helpful. When there is competition for jobs, those with more schooling and some machine skills have a greater chance of being hired. Workers usually start at jobs requiring little skill and receive their training on the job. After gaining experience, they often learn to run more complicated machinery.

Getting the Job

The best way to get a job in production is to apply directly to a leather tannery or shoe factory. Your school placement office may also be able to help you find a job. Sometimes employers list openings with the state employment office, in newspaper want ads, or on a sign outside their plant. Local union offices may also give you information about getting a job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Most production workers start in unskilled positions as laborers or as operators of simple machines. After gaining experience, they can move into more responsible jobs in processes that call for skilled workers. Some production workers become supervisors.

Valued for its strength, beauty, and durability, leather continues to be in high demand, but the employment outlook for the leather industry is poor because of automation and the growing use of synthetic materials. Between 1994 and 2004 employment declined by 62 percent, from 114,000 to 43,000 jobs. A further decline to 32,500 jobs is projected through 2014. Most of the openings that are available are created by workers who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

Working Conditions

Most employees in the leather and shoe industries work a forty-hour week. Many workers belong to labor unions. Shoe manufacturing is often seasonal—that is, there are shutdowns at certain times of the year when plants change over to the next season's shoe styles. Leather processing, however, is not seasonal. Modern safety precautions and air conditioning generally make working in shoe factories and leather tanneries both safe and comfortable, although they are sometimes noisy and filled with unpleasant odors.

Where to Go for More Information

Brotherhood of Shoe and Allied Craftsmen
PO Box 390
East Bridgewater, MA 02333
(508) 587-2606

Leather Industries of America
3050 K St., NW, Ste. 400
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 342-8497

275 Seventh Ave.
New York, NY 10001-6708
(212) 265-7000

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary depending on the kind of job, the location, and the employer. Leather workers often earn higher wages than shoe manufacturing workers do. Employers in the leather and shoe industries generally provide benefits that include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production