Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The domestic apparel industry in March continued to shed jobs, dropping 6,000 workers compared with February’s figures, on a seasonally adjusted basis, but the domestic textile industry’s employment remained constant, the Labor Department reported Friday.
The dip in the apparel payroll again came as no surprise to analysts, following the industry’s ongoing movement of production to foreign factories or shutting businesses altogether.
Carl Priestland, chief economist with the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, said pressure from retailers on apparel makers not to increase prices — or even to lower them — remains constant.
“Retailers are saying, ‘If you can’t make it at this price, I’ll get it from someplace else,”‘ Priestland said. Furthermore, domestic apparel makers are increasingly competing with retailers’ own direct-purchasing houses, which more often than not buy from foreign contractors.
“Apparel makers aren’t just competing with the Far East exporters, but they are competing with their own customers, bringing in goods directly,” Priestland said.
The apparel industry last month employed 810,000 workers, down 52,000 from March 1996. Textile mills in March employed 625,000 workers, down 17,000 from year-ago levels.
The average workweek for apparel workers increased in March to 37.5 hours from February’s 37.2 hours and March 1996’s 36.9 hours. The textile workweek last month increased to 41.5 hours from the February and March 1996 averages, which both were 40.8 hours.
The increased textile workweek is another sign the textile industry is strengthening after a 1 1/2-year malaise, said David Link, chief economist of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
“The robust economy is affecting the textile industry positively,” Link said.
Another sign of the textile industry’s improved fortunes is the uptick in orders and shipments, Link said. According to figures released last week by the Commerce Department, textile shipments in February were valued at $6.8 billion, up 1.4 percent against January and 6.8 percent from year-ago levels. Although new orders for textiles in February dipped 1.3 percent to $6.74 billion against January, they were 8.8 percent ahead of February 1996.
In the overall economy, the unemployment rate in March fell for the second consecutive month to 5.2 percent, which is the lowest rate in five months. Employers added 175,000 workers to their payrolls; the largest gains were in the retail, computer and financial businesses.
More than half the 43,000 jobs gained in all retail establishments were at department stores, which added 25,000 jobs last month to employ 2.46 million workers, for the second consecutive monthly increase. Compared with a year ago, employment in department stores last month increased 94,000.
The back-to-back gains regain ground lost in January when department stores employed 38,000 fewer workers than in December, Labor officials said.
Employment in apparel and accessories stores declined in March by 1,000 workers to 1.1 million. Compared with year-ago levels, employment in the sector was up by 2,000 jobs.
Robert Untracht, national director of retail services at Ernst & Young, said the increase in department store employment could be pinned in part on the increased emphasis on customer service, particularly at stores with expanded apparel departments.
However, he added, “Some of the added employees might be due to the increase in sales.”

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