Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — The nation’s decade-long run of economic prosperity has in many ways benefitted the apparel industry, as more Americans have begun to feel a little affluent and spend more freely.

But it’s also brought the industry a challenge: finding people willing to work in the remaining domestic mills that weave the cloth and the plants that assemble the clothes. At a time when many new jobs are being created in the service sector, executives said it’s getting more difficult to find people who want to work for a smokestack industry.

That development exists despite the continued decline of apparel and textile manufacturing jobs nationwide. At the end of the first nine months of the year, the apparel industry employed 635,000 workers, down 43,000 from September 1999 levels. The textile industry in September employed 539,000, which was 13,000 below year-ago payrolls.

That’s more than half of employment peaks for each sector. Apparel manufacturing hit a high mark in 1973, when it employed 1.4 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Textile-industry employment hit its zenith at 1.3 million people in 1951.

Meanwhile, the low unemployment rate through much of the nation hasn’t led to many crises for manufacturing executives — no one interviewed reported having to curtail production because of an inability to find workers.

However, it has forced plant managers and human-resources officials to get a little more creative about attracting and keeping plant workers — by trying to polish the image of factory work, rethinking the shift system and raising salaries for entry-level workers.

“It’s been tough throughout the industry,” said Roger Chastain, chairman and chief executive officer of Greenville, S.C.-based Mount Vernon Mills Inc., who also serves as president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute. “In some of the counties where we have plants, unemployment is under 3 percent. That makes it tough to find people.”

A 3 percent unemployment rate is substantially below the country-wide average — the most recent data available from the Department of Labor put the national rate at 4 percent in November. Since October 1999, the unemployment rate has been at its lowest point in 30 years.

While there are concerns that the economy is starting to slow, with major layoff announcements coming out of companies including insurer Aetna Inc. and consumer-products maker Gillette Co. last month, executives said they don’t anticipate major changes in the labor market in the near future.

“There’s no question that it’s a challenge and it is going to be worse,” said James Williams, president and ceo of Burlington, N.C.-based Great American Knitting Mills, who serves as chairman of The Fashion Association, a division of the American Apparel and Footwear Manufacturers Association.

One thing that has prevented Williams’ company, which makes Gold Toe socks, from really suffering from a difficulty in attracting manufacturing employees is the recent weakness in the hosiery market. The company currently has more than 1,400 manufacturing workers.

“Quite fortunately, we are going through soft markets where the demand is not such that it is putting a strain on it,” he added.

However, some textile mills admitted to having greater problems in attracting labor.

The Forstmann Co., which exited bankruptcy about a year ago, has been struggling to attract as many workers as it wants for its Dublin, Ga., weaving plant, said president Neal Grover.

“It’s no secret that there is a serious labor shortage in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s a traditional problem, but it’s exaggerated in a very low unemployment environment.”

The company has increased its production staff over the past year, to its current level of 800 — from the 450 it started the year 2000 with — as it’s been able to find the workers, said Grover. But it’s been a struggle, and the company would still like to further expand its production.

“Our plants are running full, but still we have labor shortages,” Grover said. “If we can find the labor, it’s nothing to put in more looms.”

Grover admitted that at least part of the company’s difficulty in attracting workers results from its recently shaky financial past — during the last half of the Nineties, the company made two trips through bankruptcy.

Under the company’s new owner, Victor Woolens of Montreal, financial stability is no longer a question, Grover contended. However, he acknowledged that it is taking some time to convince workers who’ve seen the company rise and fall that it will be a stable place to work.

“Forstmann has undergone some problems,” he acknowledged, adding that one of his priorities is “rebuilding confidence in the Forstmann company+

“We’re trying to humanize the company,” he continued, “making sure that all levels of management are interacting with their employees.”

But questions about the stability of textile mills and apparel manufacturers are by no means limited to companies that have filed bankruptcy petitions. Mills and manufacturers have shuttered many plants in recent years, and the job losses number into the tens of thousands.

Manufacturing giants Burlington Industries and Levi Strauss together have eliminated about 10,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs since early 1999.

Some executives said that these grim facts make it harder to attract young people into the business.

“It’s definitely a concern, particularly in plant management and training anybody to run things,” said Jim Marion, president and ceo of gray-fabrics maker Bloomsburg Mills, which employs about 500 manufacturing workers. “Let’s face it. The industry is not all that attractive from a standpoint of what is the future. There are not a lot of opportunities. It is a smokestack industry and it doesn’t have a lot of allure.”

Others refuse to focus on the dark side of things, and argue that as the instability of many New Economy businesses becomes more apparent, mill work will seem more appealing.

“The industry needs to do a better job of selling itself, because it is good, solid, decent work. We make real products. We don’t sell air. We’re not some dot-com,” said Keith Hull, president of apparel fabrics at Graniteville, S.C.-based Avondale Mills Inc. “Obviously, I believe there’s a future here. We just need to do a better job of getting people in the managerial and supervisory positions. We have a generation right now, but we have to plan for the next generation.”

Regardless of the optimism of the people who run the companies, human-resources officials said they’ve taken an active role in educating plant workers about the future of the apparel industry and the meaning of plant closings when they happen.

VF Corp. still has more than 30,000 domestic manufacturing employees, but it also operates plants in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean Basin nations. According to Susan Larson Williams, vice president of human resources at the Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel giant, the company uses its international presence as a lure for recruiting plant managers.

“They spend some time in the domestic plants, but we also have offshore operations that we send ex-pats to,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to work in Mexico for two or three years. It’s not, ‘Come to a domestic plant and that is the end of the line.’ We can talk about the global opportunities that become available.”

But while a young college graduate may chomp at the opportunity to live overseas and learn the ropes of managing foreign apparel workers, such options aren’t really available to the folks who man the production lines. After all, lower foreign wages have been the primary motive for moving plants out of the U.S.

With most apparel and fabric manufacturers entertaining plans to move more of their production into lower-cost areas, convincing workers that there is a reason to stay put becomes part of the job of a manager.

That’s a fact that Greensboro-based mill Burlington Industries Inc. has had to face. Today it employs about 10,000 manufacturing workers in the U.S., but it has cut thousands of jobs over the past two years.

A spokeswoman explained that the company has stepped up its efforts to inform its remaining manufacturing workers of why the mill has decided to close some operations and retain others, because cutbacks within a company generally make all workers nervous.

“People are very conservative when it comes to entering the textile industry,” she said, acknowledging that many current or potential manufacturing workers in the towns where Burlington operates have either been laid off by a mill in the past or seen someone close to them lose a job in a mill.

“It does affect all of our employees,” she said of the company’s recent cutbacks. “One thing we’re doing is trying to help employees understand what about that business caused us to make a decision about adjustments, whether there was overcapacity or if it was just unprofitable, so that they can be more secure. We try to be very open in our internal communications as to the reasons behind our decisions.”

One thing that executives said obviously helps in retaining workers is the industry’s pay and benefit levels. While the typical mill worker isn’t paid as well as an auto worker, starting compensation is a good bit higher than it is in many entry-level service jobs.

San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., which has 4,800 domestic manufactures working has recently raised its starting salaries for plant workers, a spokeswoman said.

Apparel companies have also emphasized the benefits they offer.

To keep its 1,600 U.S. manufacturing workers motivated, Tampa, Fla.-based Tropical Sportswear International Corp. maintains a pay plan that offers raises to all workers who train to do other jobs in their plants — regardless of whether or not their day-to-day assignments actually change.

According to chairman and ceo William Compton, who also serves as chairman of the AAFA, constantly updating workers’ skills improves efficiency and keeps manufacturing employees motivated.

“You don’t need four people to do one person’s job,” he said. In addition, the company offers language education and a fitness center.

“Even with the cost of that, our company still makes money,” he added.

Most mill executives also pointed out that advances in technology have made the actual conditions inside a mill more pleasant over the past two decades. Yet many noted that they still need to convince potential employees that the physically arduous environments featured in “Norma Rae,” the 1979 movie about a woman’s efforts to unionize a Southern mill, are no longer there.

“The jobs are a lot better now than they used to be,” said Mount Vernon’s Chastain. “The ‘Norma Rae’-type situation is not there. The jobs are clean, they’re not that physically demanding. It’s a good environment to work in.”

While the nationwide unemployment rate remains low, it varies from state to state and city to city. In many parts of the South, it’s become particularly low, due to the region’s booming growth over the past few decades.

Bloomsburg operates plants in Bloomsburg, Pa., and Monroe, N.C. Marion noted that when the company bought the southern plant in 1978, Monroe was a far-out suburb of Charlotte, which was then a relatively small city itself. So there wasn’t a lot of competition for workers.

Over the past two decades, Charlotte had grown rapidly, and Marion estimated that 40 to 50 new businesses have cropped up in and around Monroe, which he said itself is essentially part of Charlotte at this point.

That has made the competition for workers around Charlotte all the more intense, he added.

In other parts of North Carolina, the story is quite different. Jim Chesnutt, president and ceo of Washington, N.C.-based National Spinning Co. noted that around his area, mill closings and layoffs have created a large pool of skilled textile workers looking for jobs.

“Where we are, there has been an incredible number of textile and apparel operations that have downsized or closed,” he said. “Every small town for all intents and purposes had a cut-and-sew operation. They’re all gone. So there’s a big supply of people and they are looking for jobs.”

He said the unemployment rate appeared to be double the national average around Washington, N.C.

However, the story is quite different around Lafayette, Ga., where the company has a plant that employs about 600 of its total 1,600 manufacturing workers. There, a tight labor supply has made the company more aggressive in hiring legal aliens to work in its plants.

Mount Vernon has also turned to legal aliens to staff its plants, Chesnutt said.

A major remaining hurdle to attracting labor for textile mills and apparel plants is that the more mechanized operations run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which necessitates overnight and weekend staffs, executives said.

“A lot of people don’t want to work shift work,” said Chastain. “They don’t want to work second and third shifts and they don’t want to work weekends.”

One thing that Mount Vernon, along with a number of other mills, has done to make shift work more appealing for its 6,300 manufacturing employees is change from a five-day, eight-hour workweek to a schedule of alternating three- or four-day weeks of 12-hour workdays.

“The best thing that has happened has been going to 12-hour shifts, where they have a three-day week and work every other weekend,” Chastain said. “They wind up working only half the year. You have lots of free time. I’d take that myself.”

Avondale, which has more than 5,000 manufacturing workers, has also adopted the 12-hour schedule, which Hull said has helped the mill to attract younger workers.

“For the younger work force, they’d rather go in and work a few hours longer and have more time off,” he said.

Phasing in the 12-hour system is difficult, as workers are initially leery of the idea, Mount Vernon’s Chastain said. However, once it’s in place, he said it tends to be well received.

“People don’t know if they can physically handle another four hours, and the ones on the first shift don’t want to change,” he said. “But once they get used to the days off, it’s not a lot of trouble. If you put it to a vote of the people [beforehand], you’d probably find it was 80 to 20 against, but once people try it, they’re 80 to 20 for it.”

While the ATMI has no statistics on the number of mills that run 12-hour shifts, Chastain said the practice is becoming more common.

Still, despite employers’ complaints that the low unemployment rate has made attracting workers harder, there is no question that the number of positions they are trying to fill is far lower than it had been.

In November, the total number of textile and apparel workers in this country dropped to about 1.1 million. Apparel-manufacturing jobs were down about 6.6 percent from where they’d been a year earlier, while textile jobs were down 4.1 percent.

Jay Mazur, president of the apparel union UNITE, said that while there are obviously areas within the country where it’s relatively easier or harder to find plant workers, overall there are enough workers to meet the industry’s needs.

“There are still plenty of workers who are prepared to work in the apparel and clothing industries. I don’t see a shortage of workers,” he said. “There is still a sufficient labor force in this country to meet the demands of the apparel and clothing industry.

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