WASHINGTON — Textile mills, surprisingly, added jobs in March, marking the first time in four years the category has shown a gain.
Industry analysts were cautious about the slight increase, however, in the face of massive losses over the past three years.
Textile mills, fighting a long-term slump, added 100 seasonally adjusted jobs to payrolls in March to employ a total of 237,200, but employment was down by 37,000 against a year ago, the Labor Department’s employment report revealed Friday.
In the textile mill product category, employment rose by 1,500 on a seasonally adjusted basis and companies employed 177,200 people, but employment was down 10,000 against March 2003. Apparel factories shed 3,600 jobs from payrolls in March to employ 292,800, which was down 34,000 against a year ago.
Total employment in the twin industries now stands at 707,200, compared with 788,200 in March 2003.
“I see it as unexpected good news for the textile industry,” said Charles McMillion, president at MBG Information Services. “It is probably seasonal adjustment factors, but it still means we are stabilizing after an awful past few years and last year.”
McMillion warned that the slight increase could have happened due to a break in the ongoing consolidation in the industry.
“It may be a pause while companies are being consolidated and assets are being evaluated before they decide what to hold and what to fold,” said McMillion.
He said he is extremely concerned about unused capacity in the textile industry, currently running one-quarter below its total, and the apparel industry, which is running one-third below its total.
“We’re just not going to see domestic textile and apparel manufacturing come back to the U.S.,” said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research. “There are too many other places in the world where it can be produced at a lower cost.”
He said imports have had an impact for 10 years or more, and he noted that increased productivity is the newer story.
“Manufacturing overall has clearly turned around, but there is a lot of excess capacity,” said Steidtmann. “It is easier to expand business without having to add more people.”
In the overall economy, companies added an unexpected 308,000 jobs in March — the biggest monthly increase in four years, according to economists. The manufacturing sector, which had reported losses for 44 consecutive months, did not lose jobs, but it didn’t add any, either.
The unemployment rate also rose slightly to 5.7 percent, or 8.4 million people, in March from 5.6 percent in February, which means more people renewed their job searches last month but were unsuccessful.
President Bush, under heavy fire from Democrats, who are attacking his handling of the economy and the massive loss of manufacturing jobs, seized on the positive numbers Friday.
“The economy is growing and people are finding work,” Bush said in a speech at Marshall Community & Technology College in Huntington, W.V. “We’ve added 759,000 jobs since August. This economy is strong and it is getting stronger.”
With the presidential election just seven months away, the Bush administration is hoping for a solid employment gain to boost the President’s reelection chances.
Meanwhile, retail employment increased dramatically in March. Apparel and accessories stores added 5,800 new seasonally adjusted jobs to payrolls last month to employ 1.316 million people, and employment was up 19,700 against a year ago. Department stores, which have shed jobs for many months, added 7,300 jobs in March to employ 1.608 million, but employment was down 20,800 year-over-year. General merchandise stores added 10,800 employees to payrolls to employ 2.83 million people.