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Published: Saturday, 10/5/2013 - Updated: 9 months ago

Industry scrambles to find skilled U.S. textile workers

Factories return as demand for American-made re-emerges

NEW YORK TIMES
Employees work at the Motorola smartphone plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The plant is the only U.S. factory making mobile phones. Employees work at the Motorola smartphone plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The plant is the only U.S. factory making mobile phones.
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MINNEAPOLIS — It was past quitting time at a new textile factory here, but that was not the only reason the work floor looked so desolate. Under the high ceilings, the fluorescent lights still bright, there were just 15 or so industrial sewing machines in a sprawling space meant for triple that amount.

The issue wasn’t poor demand for the curtains, pillows, and other textiles being produced at the factory. Quite the opposite. The owner, the Airtex Design Group, had shifted an increasing amount of its production here from China because customers had been asking for more American-made goods.

The issue was finding workers.

“The sad truth is, we put ads in the paper and not many people show up,” said Mike Miller, Airtex’s chief executive.

The American textile and apparel industries, like manufacturing as a whole, are experiencing a nascent turnaround as apparel and textile companies demand higher quality, more reliable scheduling, and fewer safety problems than they encounter overseas.

Accidents such as the factory collapse in Bangladesh this year, which killed more than 1,000 workers, have reinforced the push for domestic production. But because the industries were decimated over the last two decades — 77 percent of the American work force has been lost since 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad — manufacturers are now scrambling to find workers to fill the specialized jobs that have not been taken over by machines.

Wages for cut-and-sew jobs, the core of the apparel industry’s remaining work force, have been rising fast — increasing 13.2 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis from 2007 to 2012, while overall private-sector pay rose just 1.4 percent.

Companies in Minnesota are so hungry for workers that they posted five job openings for every student in a new training program in industrial sewing, a full month before the training was even completed.

“It withered away and nobody noticed,” Jen Guarino, a former chief executive of the leather-goods maker J.W. Hulme, said of the skilled-sewing work force. “Businesses stopped investing in training; they stopped investing in equipment.”

Like manufacturers in many parts of the country, those in Minnesota are wrestling with how to attract a new generation of factory workers while also protecting their bottom lines in an industry where pennies per garment can make or break a business. The backbone of the new wave of manufacturing in the United States has been automation, but some tasks still require human hands.

Nationally, manufacturers have established recruitment centers that use touch screens and other interactive technology to promote the benefits of textile and apparel work.

Here, they are recruiting at high schools, papering churches and community centers with job postings, and running ads in Hmong, Somali, and Spanish-language newspapers.

And in a moment of near desperation last year — after several companies worried about turning down orders because they did not have the manpower to handle them — Minnesota manufacturers hatched their grandest rescue effort of all: a program to create a skilled work force from scratch.

Run by a coalition of manufacturers, a nonprofit organization, and a technical college, the program runs for six months, two or three nights a week, and teaches novices how to be industrial sewers, from handling a sewing machine to working with vinyl and canvas.

Eighteen students, ranging from a 22-year-old taking a break from college to a 60-year-old former janitor who had been out of work for three months, enrolled in the inaugural session that ended in June.

The $3,695 tuition was covered by charities and the city of Minneapolis, though students largely will be expected to pay for future courses themselves.

After the course, the companies, which pay to belong to the coalition, sponsored students for a three-week rotation on their factory floors and a two-week internship at minimum wage. Then the free-for-all began as the members competed to hire those graduates who decide to pursue a career in industrial sewing.

“We need to think practically about getting skilled labor,” said Ms. Guarino, a founder of the training effort, known as the Makers Coalition. “The growth is there but we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t have a pool to draw from.”

Last year, about 142,000 people were employed as sewing-machine operators in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, which had almost 1.75 million workers last year — and where the unemployment rate as of July was 4.9 percent — only 860 were employed in 2012 as machine sewers.

Airtex had room for 50 of them.

“We are looking for new sewers every day,” said Mr. Miller, the Airtex executive.

Initially Airtex paid $3 an hour on average for its Chinese workers; now, it pays about $11.80 an hour, including benefits and housing. Its American factory-floor workers make about $9 to $17 an hour, though Airtex estimates benefits add another 30 percent to those figures.

As costs were rising in China, Airtex was also getting a new message from some of its clients: They wanted more American-made products.

Health-care clients wanted medical slings and other sensitive medical products made domestically to ensure quality. Retailers did not want to pay overseas freight costs to import bulky items such as pillows, and they wanted more flexibility in turning around designs quickly.

As Airtex considered production in Vietnam and elsewhere, it became concerned about safety and quality issues — and increasingly interested in the American alternative.

Manufacturers elsewhere are also trying to build a new labor pool.

In a former glove factory in Conover, N.C., the Manufacturing Solutions Center has touch screens showing the technologies that textile manufacturers use today, while new machines spool out printed fabric. In Pennsylvania, a work-force investment board has started a program with plant tours, YouTube videos of workers, and a Web site promising that “contrary to popular opinion, many good jobs in manufacturing are still available.”

Other industry groups have created a curriculum for high schools on manufacturing, including Manufacturing Day, with factory tours for school groups.

Still, the difficulty attracting young people frustrates Debra Kerrigan, a dean at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis who is overseeing its training program.

“I think it’s just the idea of, ‘Oh, I’m a sewer,’ that doesn’t thrill the average young individual today,” Ms. Kerrigan said. “Skills for a lot of different industries are coming back now, machinists and automotive workers and sewers. I think if you have a skill when the economy gets bad, you’re more likely to succeed than someone who doesn’t.”

Compared with the other courses Dunwoody offers — graphic design, Web programming, robotics — sewing can seem a little old school, students say. But Elizabeth Huber, 22, who took a break from the University of Minnesota to take the sewing course, said that can also be a selling point.

“I like getting back to making things, to touching and manipulating materials rather than just pushing buttons or tweeting all day,” Ms. Huber said.



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