NEW YORK--While higher costs and shrinking margins are their big immediate worries, a graying textile industry is growing increasingly concerned about a lack of young talent. From holding more executive training programs to being more aggressive about recruiting on campus, textile companies are beginning to do something about it, but a lot of people say much more remains to be done. The jobs are there, they said, but there aren't enough students to fill them. "I think that on the whole the industry is acutely aware that we're running out of talent," said Jim Casey, president of the fibers division of Wellman Inc. "More and more good, top-level executives are getting close to retirement age, people with 30 or 40 years experience." The talent shortage, it is feared, will be most acutely felt at executive, engineer and design levels. According to industry estimates, roughly 100,000 college students are in textile or textile-related fields of study at either textile-specific colleges or schools that offer textile courses. While many will go on to successful textile careers, some executives are concerned that the lure of other businesses--computers, pharmaceuticals and various consumer product industries, or what one observer called "the Procter & Gambles of the world"--will rob textiles of skilled, young executives. Textile executives are quick to point out that a mid-level executive just out of college can enter the industry and earn $50,000-plus almost immediately as an engineer or designer. The key to retaining a good, young work force, executives said, is to develop programs that will not only draw students to the textile industry, but keep them there. That strategy includes working more closely with textile schools throughout the country, reinstating executive training programs and projecting the industry as a dynamic one. "We've done some more hiring over the past year or two, but it's our hope that over the near term we can bring even more young talent into DuPont," said Jerald A. Blumberg, DuPont's senior vice president who oversees the firm's $6.8 billion fibers business. "It's difficult to quantify but I guarantee that we as colleges have lost thousands of good, talented kids over the past decade to other industries," said David Brookstein, dean of the School of Textiles and Materials Technology at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Sciences (PCTS). "But those that do stick with it wind up with great jobs, and they get them quickly." Brookstein said that of the nearly 450 students who will graduate from PCTS this month, "90 percent of them will find jobs in their area of study within three months" and that "most of them have already found jobs." "There are no fewer than 100 openings around the country for a good textile chemist," he added, "but I don't think there are even that many textile chemistry students to be found." Brookstein, who joined PCTS last July, said one of his goals is to enlist a full-time recruiter, "someone, probably a past graduate, who will go around to high schools and generate interest in textiles and our school." While Georgia Tech and Clemson currently utilize recruiters, Brookstein said, "Being a smaller private school, we would have to look for funding from the industry and a recruiter would greatly help. It's all perception, a perception that the industry is dying and that no company or school is making the effort. Over the past two years we've made a significant effort to get better professors, newer equipment and more internship and placement programs going." Here's a look at some of the programs undertaken by companies and associations over the past 18 months to, in Brookstein's phrase, "energize the textile youth.": The Textile Distributors Association has produced a video on opportunities in the textile industry and distributed it to colleges and secondary schools. It also has implemented career days, at both PCTS and at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where executives meet with potential hires. It is currently in discussions with Parsons School of Design and Rhode Island School of Design to hold similar events. The Knitted Textile Association has established a scholarship program for families of member firms, opening the door for their children to study textile-related fields. l Burlington Industries has beefed up its summer internship programs, and expanded executive training programs. Wellman has instituted a student-designer competition at FIT and PCTS. The winners got a spot in runway shows during the recent 7th on Sixth Fashion Week in New York. Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion arm of 30,000 U.S. cotton growers, in conjunction with North Carolina State University has installed a modular nonwovens pilot line in the school's college of textiles. The $75,000 line, funded in part by Cotton Inc., includes wet-lay, hydroentangling, foambonding and through-air bonding technology. "The textile industry has been erroneously called a sunset industry," said Bruce Roberts, executive director of the 150-member firm TDA, which chiefly comprises New York area mills and converters. Roberts said that through his organization's career days, "many of our member firms have employed students they've met and interviewed there." "The bottom line is that one can make a fine living in the textile industry," he said. "We are finding more competition for top people now, as the entire business climate in general is more competitive," said Harold McLeod, Burlington Industries' director of human resources and development. Burlington, said McLeod, will have 42 students interning at various levels this summer. McLeod also said that Burlington works closely with about 20 schools--including Southern textile giants Clemson and North Carolina State, along with North Carolina A&T and Howard University--to develop young talent. "The image of the textile industry is something we all have to work on, as the idea that it is a fading industry may enter the mind of some people," McLeod said. Burlington, he said, invites top students to tour their facilities throughout the Southeast. The firm also holds seminars on campus, informing prospective students about the textile industry and Burlington. "We need kids who will be leaders 10 to 15 years down the road," McCleod said. With this in mind, he noted, the teaching aspects of executive development have been broadened. "For the young people we do hire, we also have developmental programs where they can learn about the business aspect of the textile industry. It's almost like a mini-university. Getting them is one thing," McLeod added. "Retaining them is another." Wellman's Casey said his firm also has stepped up its already extensive recruitment for engineers, "and from time to time we bring in an occasional MBA." Casey said it's also important for companies to "improve experience levels internally." "We try to give internal people more diverse jobs, so they can step in and assume the additional responsibilities when the time comes," Casey added. "We can do more and we will do more, because our business continues to grow.
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