Shoe and Leather Workers and Repairers

Significant Points

  • Workers generally learn their craft on the job; trainees become fully skilled in 6 months to 2 years.
  • Employment is expected to decline, reflecting increases in imports, laborsaving machinery, and business costs.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Shoe and leather workers create stylish and durable leather products, such as boots, saddles, and luggage. Although they produce different goods, shoe and leather workers share many tasks. For example, they first check the texture, color, and strength of the leather. They then place a pattern of the item being produced on the leather, trace the pattern onto the leather, cut along the outline, and sew the pieces together. Other steps may vary according to the type of good being produced.

Orthopedic and therapeutic shoemakers, for instance, make or modify footwear according to a doctor’s prescription. These workers attach the insoles to shoe lasts (a wooden form shaped like a foot), affix the shoe uppers, and apply heels and outsoles. These shoemakers then shape the heels with a knife and sand them on a buffing wheel for smoothness. Finally, they dye and polish the shoes. Custom shoe workers also may modify existing footwear for people with foot problems and special needs. This can involve preparing inserts, heel pads, and lifts from casts of customers’ feet.

In addition to the common steps listed above, saddlemakers often apply leather dyes and liquid top coats to produce a gloss finish on a saddle. They may also decorate the saddle surface by hand stitching or by stamping the leather with decorative patterns and designs. Luggage makers fasten leather to a frame and attach handles and other hardware. They also cut and secure linings inside the frames and sew or stamp designs onto the luggage exterior.

Shoe and leather repairers use their knowledge of leatherworking to extend the lives of worn leather goods. The most common type of shoe repair is replacing soles and heels. Repairers place the shoe on a last and remove the old sole and heel with a knife or pliers or both. They then attach new soles and heels to shoes either by stitching them in place or by using cement or nails. Leather repairers also work with other leather goods, such as suitcases or handbags, that may need seams to be re-sewn or handles and linings replaced.

All leather workers and repairers use handtools and machines. The most commonly used handtools are knives, hammers, awls (used to poke holes in leather to make sewing possible), and skivers (for splitting leather). Power-operated equipment includes sewing machines, heel nailing machines, sanding machines, hole punching machines, sole stitchers, and computerized machinery to analyze foot needs and conditions.

Depending on the size of the factory or shop, a leather worker may perform one or more of the steps required to complete or repair a product. In smaller factories or shops, workers generally perform several tasks, while those in larger facilities tend to specialize. Most leather workers, however, eventually learn the different skills involved in producing leather goods as they move from one task to another.

Self-employed shoe repairers and owners of custom-made shoe and leather shops have managerial responsibilities in addition to their regular duties. They must maintain good relations with their customers, make business decisions, and keep accurate records.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Shoe and leather workers and repairers need to pay close attention when working with machines to avoid punctures, lacerations, and abrasions. Although there are few health hazards if precautions are followed, work areas can be noisy and odors from leather dyes and stains are often present.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Shoe and leather workers and repairers held about 23,000 jobs in 1998. Wage and salary workers held about 17,000 jobs. About half of these wage and salary workers were employed in the manufacture of footwear products; one-fifth were employed in the production of leather goods such as luggage, handbags, and apparel; and another fifth worked in shoe repair and shoeshine shops. Self-employed individuals, who typically own and operate small shoe repair shops or specialty leather manufacturing firms, held about 6,000 jobs.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Precision shoe and leather workers and repairers generally learn their craft on the job, either through in-house training programs or working as helpers to experienced workers. Helpers usually begin by performing simple tasks and progressing to more difficult jobs like cutting or stitching leather. Trainees typically become fully skilled in 6 months to 2 years; the length of training varies according to the nature of the work and the aptitude and dedication of the individual.

A limited number of schools and national shoe repair chains offer training in shoe repair and leather work. These programs may last from a few weeks to 1 year and impart basic skills including leather cutting, stitching, and dyeing. Students learn shoe construction, practice shoe repair, and study the fundamentals of running a small business. Graduates are encouraged to gain additional training by working with an experienced leather worker or repairer.

Shoe repairers need to keep their skills up-to-date to work with rapidly changing footwear styles. Some repairers do this by attending trade shows and receiving training from product manufacturers. Others attend specialized training seminars and workshops in custom shoe making, shoe repair, and other leather work sponsored by national and regional associations.

Pedorthists—who produce or modify prescription footwear—may receive certification from the Pedorthic Footwear Association. These workers become certified after completing 120 hours of training and passing an exam.

Manual dexterity and the mechanical aptitude to work with handtools and machines are important in the shoe repair and leatherworking occupations. Shoe and leather workers who produce custom goods should have artistic ability as well. These workers should have self-discipline to work alone under little supervision. In addition, leather workers and repairers who own shops must have knowledge of business practices and management, as well as a pleasant manner when dealing with customers.

Many individuals begin as workers or repairers and advance to salaried supervisory and managerial positions. Some may open their own shop or business.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of shoe and leather workers is expected to decline through 2008, primarily because of the growing number of imported shoes and other leather goods which have displaced domestic production. In addition, inexpensive imports have made the cost of replacing shoes and leather goods cheaper or more convenient than repairing them, thereby reducing the demand for shoe and leather repairers.

These workers are also adversely affected by other factors, such as the rising cost of leather and higher rents in the high-traffic areas in which more shoe repairers are relocating. Moreover, shoe repair shops that offer "while-you-wait" service are investing in new machinery which is making repairers more productive and helping to reduce the demand for these workers. Some of the more expensive, fine leather products will continue to be repaired, however, and this demand will moderate the employment decline of shoe and leather repairers. In the future, though, most job openings in this occupation will arise from the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the work force.

Prospects for workers employed in the manufacture and modification of custom-made molded or orthopedic shoes are better than those for most other leather workers. This reflects rapid growth in the elderly population and an increasing emphasis on preventive foot care. The employment effects of these trends may be limited, however, because the demand for orthopedic footwear is increasingly filled by manufactured shoes that are modified to specification instead of completely custom made.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of shoe and leather workers and repairers were $7.99 in 1998. Half earned between $6.50 and $9.84. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $5.79, while the top 10 percent earned over $11.47. Those employed in the non-rubber footwear industry earned an average of $7.73 an hour in 1997. Owners of shoe repair and custom shoe manufacturing shops typically earn substantially more than beginning salaried workers.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other workers who make or repair items using handtools and machinery include dressmakers, custom tailors and sewers, designers and patternmakers, and furriers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For information about the custom-made prescription shoe business and training opportunities in this field, contact:

  • Pedorthic Footwear Association, 7150 Columbia Gateway Dr., Suite G, Columbia, MD 21046. Internet: http://www.pedorthics.org
O*NET Codes: 89511 About the O*NET codes

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