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The U.S. Is Short on Workers Who Can Sew

Justin Fox
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The U.S. Is Short on Workers Who Can Sew

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Venerable apparel retailer Brooks Brothers says it is “in the process of converting its New York, North Carolina and Massachusetts factories from manufacturing ties, shirts and suits to now making masks and gowns.” Michigan-based workwear maker Carhartt is shifting over to mask and gown production, too. In Houston, Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens, which normally sells to hotels and cruise ships, has gone all-in on surgical masks.

These are encouraging signs for a country that remains way short on the personal protective equipment needed by health-care workers treating patients with Covid-19 — and eventually by the rest of us to help keep the disease from continuing its spread. But you’re not going to see a lot more announcements like these by U.S. apparel manufacturers, because there aren’t a lot more U.S. apparel manufacturers. Employment in the industry was actually up slightly in March — unlike employment in just about every other industry — but it has fallen 89% since 1990. In textile manufacturing, it’s down 79%.

Manufacturing employment overall is down over that stretch too, of course, but by a much smaller 28%. And real value added by manufacturing (its contribution to gross domestic product, basically) is up 52% since 1997, when that data series begins, so part of the story is that productivity gains have allowed U.S. manufacturers to make more with fewer workers. For apparel, though, real value added is down 65% since 1997 and for textiles it’s down 39%, and while the latter has seen production rebound a bit over the course of the current expansion, apparel has not.

Apparel making for the U.S. market basically moved overseas, with a quick look through my closet revealing “made in” labels from China, Honduras, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius. It had not been what you’d call a high-value industry, and the pay for workers certainly wasn’t great. U.S. consumers seem to have gained from the shift, with clothing and footwear’s share of consumer spending falling from 5.2% in 1990 to 2.7% last year. Still, it left a lot of jobs to replace and has left the country short-handed at a time when the ability to sew things is suddenly and unexpectedly of great value.

To be sure, most of the protective respirators and the surgical masks in use today are not the product of traditional textile manufacturing or cut-and-sew production. They are generally made of spun or blown plastics — Chinese oil and petrochemicals company Sinopec has a peppy video about the factory it built over 12 days in February and early March that can produce 1.2 million N95 respirators or 6 million surgical masks a day. The U.S. still has a huge petrochemicals industry, and the biggest company in it, Exxon Mobil, announced Thursday that it is working with the Global Center for Medical Innovation in Atlanta “to rapidly redesign and manufacture reusable personal protection equipment for health care workers.” That’s good news. But in the meantime, it’s nice that Brooks Brothers, Carhartt and Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens are still around to fill in some of the gaps.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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