Byline: Kristi Ellis

WASHINGTON — The textile and apparel industry tenuously maintained employment stability in March, while retailers slowly added jobs.
Despite a loss of 2,000 seasonally adjusted jobs from its payrolls in March to 437,000, according to the Labor Department’s report Friday, the textile industry was spared the steep declines of the past year-and-a-half, economists said.
Apparel manufacturing employment remained unchanged in March at 527,000.
“Last year was such a disaster for textiles and apparel and it is encouraging to see employment stabilizing,” said Charles W. McMillion, chief economist with MBG Information Services. “The textile and apparel industry continued to be under pressure and job losses continued, but at a less severe rate than last year thanks to a pickup in demand.”
The textile workweek in March rose to 41.8 hours up from 41 hours in February, while the apparel workweek also increased to 38.4 hours in March from 37.1 hours in February.
“That indicates some chance the industry could even add jobs in the short term,” McMillion said.
McMillion remained wary about the long-term prospects for the textile and apparel manufacturing sector, however.
“I don’t expect that either industry will add jobs [in the long run] because productivity growth and import competition continue to be strong,” he said. “The combination should keep production and jobs flat or declining throughout the rest of the year.”
Rajeev Dhawan, director of the economic forecasting center at Georgia State University, said the turmoil in the Mideast could dampen the economic turnaround.
“Normal job growth is quite far away,” said Dhawan. “The troubles in the Mideast and rising oil prices are the biggest danger factors that can snuff out this nascent recovery.”
In the overall economy, the unemployment rate edged up by 0.2 percent to 5.7 percent in March, but employers added 58,000 new jobs to payrolls.
“Services grew substantially and that’s good news,” said Dhawan. “Manufacturing losses continued, but the declines were smaller than before.”
Dhawan noted that as employment rises in services, consumer spending should increase, which will also help the retail sector.
Department stores, which posted the biggest seasonally adjusted gain in March, added 9,000 jobs to their payrolls, bringing the total to 2.44 million. The number was still down by 12,000 compared with March 2001.
Apparel and accessories stores reversed the loss of 6,000 jobs in February to posted a gain of 4,000 jobs in March to 1.22 million. Compared with March 2001, that number was down by 7,000.
Meanwhile, general merchandise stores posted a loss of 3,000 jobs in March to 2.78 million.
“It’s still a weak retail sector,” Dhawan warned. “The overall economic recovery is tenuous and there are too many dark clouds on the horizon, though it is on the right path, but at a slow speed.”

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