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Lack of workers hinders textiles rebound

As wages rise, factories scramble to recruit and train people for cut-and-sew jobs

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale textile plant in Gaffney, S.C.

Mike Belleme/New York Times

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale textile plant in Gaffney, S.C.

MINNEAPOLIS — It was past quitting time at a new textile factory, but that was not the only reason the work floor looked so desolate. Under the high ceilings, the fluorescent lights still bright, there were just 15 or so industrial sewing machines in a sprawling space meant for triple that number.

The issue wasn’t poor demand for the curtains, pillows and other textiles being produced. Quite the opposite. The owner, Airtex Design Group, had shifted an increasing amount of production here from China because customers had been asking for American-made goods.

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The issue was finding workers.

“The sad truth is, we put ads in the paper and not many people show up,” said CEO Mike Miller.

The US textile and apparel industries, like manufacturing as a whole, are experiencing a nascent turnaround as companies demand higher quality, more reliable scheduling, and fewer safety problems than they encounter overseas. Accidents like the factory collapse in Bangladesh this year, which killed more than 1,000 workers, have reinforced the push for domestic production. But because the industries were decimated over the last two decades — 77 percent of their American workforce was lost after 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad — manufacturers scramble to find workers to fill specialized jobs that machines have not taken over.

Wages for cut-and-sew jobs, the core of the apparel industry’s remaining workforce, have been rising fast — up 13.2 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis from 2007 to 2012. Minnesota companies are so hungry for workers that they posted five job openings for every student in a new training program in industrial sewing, a month before the training was even completed.

In a moment of near desperation last year — after several companies worried about turning down orders because they did not have the manpower — Minnesota manufacturers hatched their grandest effort of all: a program to create a skilled workforce from scratch.

Run by a coalition of manufacturers, a nonprofit organization, and a technical college, the program runs for six months, two or three nights a week, and teaches novices how to be industrial sewers.

Eighteen students, from a 22-year-old taking a break from college to a 60-year-old former janitor who had been out of work for three months, enrolled in the inaugural session, which ended in June. The $3,695 tuition was covered by charities and the city of Minneapolis, though students will largely be expected to pay for future courses themselves.

After the course, the companies, which pay to belong to the coalition, sponsored students for a three-week rotation on their factory floors and a two-week internship at minimum wage. Then the free-for-all began as the members competed to hire the graduates.

“We need to think practically about getting skilled labor,” said Guarino, a founder of the training effort, Makers Coalition. “The growth is there but we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t have a pool to draw from.”

Airtex’s roots in Minneapolis date to 1918. In the 1980s, Susan Shields founded a baggage company, and the two combined in 2000 as Airtex Design Group, producing home textiles for companies like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.

Soon after the merger, the company began producing in China. Today, it employs about 100 Chinese workers through a partner factory in Dongguan, but production there is no longer the bargain it once was.

Initially Airtex paid $3 an hour, on average, for its Chinese workers; now, it pays about $11.80 an hour, including benefits and housing. Its American factory-floor workers make $9 to $17 an hour, though Airtex estimates benefits add 30 percent to those figures.

As costs were rising in China, Airtex was also getting a new message from clients: They wanted more US-made products. Health care clients wanted medical slings and other sensitive medical products made locally to ensure quality. Retailers did not want to pay overseas freight costs to import bulky items like pillows, and they wanted more flexibility in turning around designs quickly.

As Airtex considered production in Vietnam and elsewhere, it became concerned about safety and quality issues — and increasingly interested in the American alternative.

“The opportunity for domestic business right now is unbelievable,” Shields said. “Either we start to bring it back here, more of it, or we start going to places that are marginally unsafe.”

But the lack of workers in Minnesota made shifting business back home frustrating. It had gotten to the point where new business sometimes felt like a headache.

In the various waves of American textile production, dating to the 1800s, the problem of an available and willing workforce solved itself.

Little capital was required — the boss just needed sewing equipment and people willing to work. That made it an attractive business for newly arrived immigrants.

Today in Minnesota, immigrants are once again being seen as the new hope.

Last fall, Lifetrack, a nonprofit that helps immigrants, people on welfare, and those with disabilities in St. Paul, began screening clients for possible admission to a sewing program. The first task was to test English and math proficiency. Language skills are essential so workers can communicate with bosses, but math skills are just as important because sewing requires precise measurements.

Starting wages were $12 and $16 an hour.

Manufacturers elsewhere are also trying to build a labor pool. In a former glove factory in Conover, N.C., the Manufacturing Solutions Center has touch screens showing technologies that textile manufacturers use. In Pennsylvania, a workforce investment board has started a program with plant tours, YouTube videos of workers, and a website promising that “contrary to popular opinion, many good jobs in manufacturing are still available.”

Other industry groups have created a curriculum for high schools on manufacturing and offer factory tours for school groups.

Still the difficulty of attracting young people frustrates Debra Kerrigan, a dean at Dunwoody College of Technology.

“I think it’s just the idea of, ‘Oh, I’m a sewer,’ that doesn’t thrill the average young individual today,” she said. “Skills for a lot of different industries are coming back now, machinists and automotive workers and sewers. I think if you have a skill when the economy gets bad, you’re more likely to succeed than someone who doesn’t.”

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