JOB LEVELS IN APPAREL SINK, BUT TEXTILES AGAIN UP IN JAN.
Byline: Jennifer Owens
WASHINGTON — The slide in U.S. apparel manufacturing jobs continued in January with the industry losing a seasonally adjusted 8,000 jobs against December, the Labor Department reported Friday.
Meanwhile, for the third consecutive time, textile industry employment grew slightly, this time by 1,000 workers, to make January’s total textile industry payroll 630,000. The total was down 10,000 workers, or 1.5 percent, from year-ago figures.
Last month, the apparel industry employed 815,000 workers, a drop of 6.5 percent, or 53,000 workers, from January 1996. The loss was second only to federal job losses (64,000) for all areas except the U.S. Postal Service.
The 12-month loss also was more than double the average annual rate of 20,000 job losses, said Carl Priestland, chief economist for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association. He said the acceleration is linked to ever-increasing import competition, which continues to push manufacturers to look for cheaper sources offshore.
Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, agreed. “Clearly those jobs were never meant to stay here, nor are they ever going to be back in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not going to stop next week, so the question really is: How deep does it go and how much longer will it take to get there?”
Finding that answer will take some soul-searching, he said. The topics include: “What can be done in terms of investing, setting wage scales and increasing the skills of the work force to hold on to some substantial portion of the 800,000 workers still in the U.S.?”
Priestland said another pressure on apparel payrolls has come from shrinking margins as retailers cut prices to attract consumers back to their stores. That trend, though, may be retreating.
“I think consumers are buying a little more apparel,” Priestland said. “It’s nothing spectacular — just a little better. But the economy isn’t spectacular; it’s just a little better.”
Sandra Shaber, an economist with the WEFA Group in Philadelphia, said better retail sales may slow employment losses in coming months.
She said preliminary reports on January’s retail sales show continuing improvement from Christmas, especially in women’s and children’s wear categories.
On the textile side, Shaber speculated that the slight rise in workers may be linked to record export figures from the fourth quarter. However, she said, “It’s not clear how much of that is going to feed increased demand in the U.S.”
Shaber said it’s going to take increased demand from the U.S. and worldwide markets to staunch the flow of apparel job losses.
She added, though, that some domestic success stories are already being written by companies producing cutting-edge fabrics, filling special niches or specializing in quick turnaround for time-dependent fashions.
In the short term, a rise in the average workweek shows some strength industrywide. According to the Labor Department, the average textile work week rose 14 percent in January from the year-earlier period. That figure, however, included a slight monthly dip, from 41.6 hours in December to 41.1 hours in January.
The apparel work week also saw a 12-month increase — from 33.5 hours in January 1996 to 37.2 hours last month, an 11 percent improvement. Like textiles, apparel’s January 1997 figure included a monthly dip, 0.8 percent, against December.
Department stores last month employed 2,434,000 workers, down 20,000 from December, but 104,000 above year-ago levels.
Apparel and accessories stores last month employed 1,114,000 workers, up 11,000 from December and up 14,000 from 1996.
Meanwhile, in the overall economy, the unemployment rate remained essentially unchanged at 5.4 percent. Such stability, combined with steady wage and interest rates, could be good for business, Priestland said.
“I’m not sure that this isn’t the best of both worlds,” he said. “It’s no longer boom or bust.”