WASHINGTON — Manufacturers of textile-mill products have driven an unusual gain in jobs so far this year in the overall textile and apparel sectors, which posted their first combined increase in a four-month period — 500 jobs — since current records began in 1990.
However, economists said the net boost in textile and apparel employment is linked to a rise in military spending for a range of products, including industrial fabrics, tents and uniforms, to support the war in Iraq, and does not indicate a reversal of the jobs picture in those industries.
Total employment in the twin industries stands at 713,500, compared with 776,900 in April 2003, as the sectors have battled long-term job attrition due to competition from low-cost imports.
Employment rose by 1,400 in April in the textile mill product category, with companies employing 180,800. But employment was down by 4,000 against a year ago, according to the Labor Department’s employment report released Friday. The Labor Department also revised its apparel and textile numbers for March upward by 2,400 and textile product manufacturers accounted for the entire gain.
Textile mills and apparel manufacturers, on the other hand, continued to shed jobs, in April and in March’s revised numbers. Fighting a long-term slump, textile mills shed 1,100 jobs in April to employ 236,100 and employment was down by 34,300 against a year ago. Apparel factories cut 200 jobs in April to employ 296,600, but employment was down by 25,100 against April 2003. The Labor Department revised its textile mill employment numbers downward for March as opposed to the gain previously reported.
“Domestic demand has not accelerated particularly and import competition has certainly continued to grow, so the only explanation I can find for the increase in textile product employment is military purchases,” said Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services, noting the apparel and textile industries have lost a combined 333,000 jobs since January 2001.
Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research, said, “I wouldn’t mark this as a turnaround in employment in textile and apparel manufacturing in the U.S. by any means. These industries are in a long-term decline because of the Caribbean, Mexico and now China, as companies continue to look for low-cost manufacturing, which is clearly not in the U.S.”
In the overall economy, companies added 288,000 jobs to their payrolls in April as the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent — or 8.2 million unemployed people — from 5.7 percent in March.
The employment report was good news for President Bush, who has come under fire from Democrats and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry for his handling of the economy and the massive loss of manufacturing jobs. With the presidential election just six months away, the Bush administration is hoping for solid employment gains to boost his reelection chances.
“The economy is showing across-the-board gains, including job growth,” said Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. “This is the eighth straight month of job gains, with more than 1.1 million jobs created since last August.”
The manufacturing sector, which had reported losses each month from August 2000 through January of this year, added 20,000 jobs in April and has gained 27,000 since the beginning of the year, based on the Labor Department’s revised numbers.
Strong increases in retail employment drove the employment gains in the overall economy. Apparel and accessories stores added 4,000 jobs in April to employ 1.3 million people and employment was up 21,200 against a year ago. Department stores, which have shed jobs for many months, added 6,400 jobs in April to employ 1.6 million, but employment fell 5,600 year-over-year. General merchandise stores added 10,500 employees to payrolls for the month to employ 2.8 million, a 22,100 rise over April 2003.