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Made in USA Threatened by Labor Shortage

In a twist of irony, the Made in the USA textile and apparel movement, largely begun to bring badly needed jobs back to the domestic economy, is being plagued by, of all things, a labor shortage.

A resurgence of interest in domestically-produced soft goods has caused many brands — including American Apparel, Karen Kane, Bill’s Khakis, Carhartt, Adriano Goldschmied, J Brand, and others — to open U.S. factories or source from domestic contractors.

Most of these are higher end labels that can absorb the increased costs associated with domestic manufacturing. However, makers are finding it hard to find people to staff their production facilities. Thousands of sewing machine operator jobs are currently unfilled, according to job openings posted by U.S.-based apparel manufacturers, a shortage that might intensify as higher paying jobs are created elsewhere in the economy and unemployment continues to drop from its current rate of 6.3%. Minneapolis-based home textile manufacturing company Airtex Design Group has a facility to staff 45 cut-and-sew employees, yet has only managed to fill a third of them.

The workforce with skills to cut and sew apparel is so scarce that some companies are worried they will have to turn down orders. Many of the people who worked in U.S. apparel factories during their heyday decades in the 1970s and 1980s retired long ago. The pool of workers that does exist largely consists of baby-boomers with a limited number of working years left. Many young people are gravitating toward more skilled manufacturing or engineering jobs, or prefer to work in professional or office environments. Airtex Design Group’s CEO Mike Miller, says that few people show up even after advertising in the newspaper.

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Over the past decade, U.S. textile and apparel production employment has plunged by almost 50 percent, to a record low 363,000 jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 110,000 cut-and-sew apparel workers in the U.S., a number that has been steadily declining each month.

The recent rise in U.S. based production demand has been attributed to several factors. Many consumers feel that stemming the outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing would be good for the economy and help reduce unemployment. Those interested in human rights denounce the unsafe working environments in places like Bangladesh. Some retailers want to reduce supply-chain cycle time and feel that domestic sourcing would help them do that. Others need smaller minimums than foreign factories will allow.

A growing number are producing domestically to lend their products more of an American feel. Venerable menswear brand Brooks Brothers now makes the majority of its suits in its Massachusetts factory, where it employs 475 sewers. Not only has the move helped the brand’s appeal with domestic consumers, it has been a hit with foreign customers. Production head John Martynec told USA Today that “A U.S. product is perceived as a luxury item in other areas of the world.”

Although U.S. cut-and-sew wages have increased by more than 13 percent in the past seven years (inflation adjusted), to an average $14.79 per hour, the labor cost gap has narrowed due to an increase in labor rates in China, which in some places has risen to more than $12 per hour. However, with the current labor shortage in the U.S., textile and apparel wage rates will have to rise to attract more workers.

Across the country, apparel and textile manufacturers who want to meet the growing demand for U.S.-made goods are coming up with innovative solutions to solve the employee drought, including apprenticeship programs, referral bonuses, and training programs for the inexperienced. In Minnesota, a completely sponsored program was developed to train potential industrial sewers from scratch. Still, for every student enrolled, there were five available factory positions.

Immigration reform may be one possible solution to this problem. Some Los Angeles manufacturers are hoping for more liberal immigration laws that will enable to them to legally employ willing, skilled laborers, even if they are not authorized to be in the U.S. Lifetrack, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged individuals and authorized immigrants, is screening for sewing positions, testing and enhancing math and English skills.