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The US Sewn Products Industry Faces Sizable Labor Shortage

The sewn products sector is struggling where labor is concerned.

As evidence of this fact, there’s a man in Texas who is alleged to be the only person within a 200-mile radius with the skills needed to repair sewn product manufacturing equipment. Just by listening to a machine, he’s able to identify the problem and offer a solution, and he can be at your factory sometime between next Tuesday and two months from now. He is a regional prodigy.

He also represents the decline in local resources and a need for skilled labor.

Understanding this decline starts by looking at the change in late 20th century consumer trends. In the 1960s, the average household spent more than 10 percent of their annual income on apparel goods. This total represented a low number of high-quality goods, 95 percent of which were manufactured and sold in the United States. By the 1980s and ‘90s, the pendulum swung, and the desire for high-quality products was trumped by a need for more—more clothes, more shoes, more things—at a lower cost.

As companies vowed to keep up with consumer demand, they sought larger volume at smaller margins. Mass production and offshoring were popularized, and the U.S. sewn products manufacturing industry experienced a substantial blow as engineering, operating and mechanical jobs were moved overseas. The past 30 years continued to see a downward trajectory for domestic manufacturing in the apparel and sewn products industry, and by 2010 only 2 percent of the world’s apparel was made in the United States. And thus we reacquaint ourselves with the story of one man in Texas.

But before we yield entirely to the stronghold of offshore manufacturing, there’s a promising light on the horizon.

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Within the next year, the millennial generation will surpass the boomer generation in size, representing one of the most powerful consumer segments and an ever-growing portion of the workforce. As the millennial generation ages, we’re seeing the quantity versus quality pendulum swing once more.

Millennials are trading in lower-priced, mass-produced goods for higher-quality, ethically-produced items. They seek knowledge on where and how their products are made, and who is making them. They appreciate the high standards of domestic manufacturing and the added value of domestic job growth, appealing to both sides of the political aisle.

The demand for reshoring represents a unique opportunity for workforce development in our industry. As companies grow domestically, so too will their need for skilled labor, expanding the U.S. job market and opening the door for a stronger U.S. economy. But getting there will take time.

When the industry packed its bags and moved abroad years ago, it left behind the notion that a career in domestic manufacturing was a thing of the past. As years went by, a generational gap in skillsets grew. Training programs and technical education diminished and a career in manufacturing came with a tarnished reputation. The introduction of automation, though effective, presented another challenge as machines began to replace people along the assembly line.

Though these roadblocks exist, they don’t diminish the need for hands-on, technical support. Recognizing the opportunities, the sewn products industry has made it its mission to improve workforce development efforts stateside.

In March, fellow association SEAMS, the Association and Voice of the U.S. Sewn Products Industry, which leads the charge for Made in America initiatives, issued a two-part series on workforce development training, listing a number of companies and resources engaged in the initiative. SEAMS also introduced a new award, alongside the Reshoring Initiative, to commend the works of companies making strides to bring jobs back to the United States. Local North Carolina technical colleges, including Catawba Valley and Gaston College, have also invested in new resources and jobs programs with the goal of training the next generation’s workforce and shifting perceptions about technical careers.

As with anything, balance is key. Maintaining a global footprint is imperative for many suppliers to the industry, but recognizing the value of domestic operations is just as important. This is not one company’s calling. This is a plea to the entire industry. Real change starts with grassroots efforts, an investment in infrastructure, and both federal and state incentives. It has to be an ecosystem that works together if we are to build the next generation’s workforce.

Michael McDonald is the president of the Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA). He is also currently completing his doctoral degree in Textile Technology Management at North Carolina State University (NC State) with a focus on workforce development in the manufacturing sector of the sewn products industry.