We all witnessed the amazing efforts of manufacturers and workrooms across this country step up to fill the void of desperately needed PPE. There was immediate talk of "bringing it back" and campaigns promising a future in US manufacturing jobs. But, for those of us in this business BEFORE the crisis, we know this isn't going to happen overnight. And if we don't start to find solutions immediately, a huge opportunity could be lost.
NC is the largest producer of textiles in the country and companies from the mountains to the beach struggle to fill sewing jobs. We have been telling anyone who would listen for years, that we don't have the infrastructure to support any substantial growth. Without rebuilding the labor pool, new opportunities for designers and manufacturers will be challenging. Skilled sewers are in critical need, but the most concerning loss we face are the mechanics who ensure the industrial sewing machines are working.
From the 60's to 80's, the sewing industry was a huge business, especially here in North Carolina. A large company could easily employ up to 1000 employees. Manufacturers would have multiple mechanics trained to specific machines. This was necessary considering many facilities had 100's of different types of industrials.
Many of these mechanics would start in a sewing factory at a very young age and work their entire career repairing machines.
When textiles were big business in the US, mechanics would train either through a community college program or directly with the sewing machine manufacturer. They could travel to Union Special or Reece and train in their facility or in-house, if working for a large corporation buying many machines.
The few still employed today have been in the business for decades, some over 40 years. Now heading into retirement, we are about to lose a generation of skilled workers that are the foundation of having a thriving "Made in America" resurgence.
It's been nearly 30 years since 97% of textile production moved overseas, making it very difficult to find a skilled mechanic today. Tradesmen have moved into other careers, as work here in the US dried up with one factory closing after another. There are very few mechanics left under the age of 60 and many of them are self trained.
North Carolina is one of the largest textile producers in the US, but we have a shortage even in our state.
If we are only making 3% of clothing in the US, why is this a problem? Clothing manufacturers are not the only business in need of these workers. Sewing is essential in nearly every community across our country. Here is a list of just a few industries that depend on these jobs.
Without a skilled labor force, sustained growth is not possible. Not only will this limit the "Made in America" resurgence, but will affect how the industry approaches the machines as a commodity. The theory is without mechanics, sewing machines will become a replacement versus a repair job. The quality will continue to decrease in line with lower prices, but another concerning aspect could be the impact on the environment. Fashion is already the 2nd largest polluter globally and intentionally producing "disposable" equipment heading to landfills is taking manufacturing in the wrong direction of sustainability. Some of my best machines were used by Raleigh manufacturers in the 90's and still run exceptionally well today.
It is not too late to find solutions, but action would need to happen now. With global wages well under our minimum wage, going back to the textile empire of the 80's is unlikely. But, there are huge opportunities for domestic manufacturing growth in the future and we need to address these issues. One solution could be a return to training at community colleges (and high school trade programs). With each state in need of specific skills, colleges and manufacturers could partner on a curriculum that preps graduates for jobs needed in each locality. This could include both sewing and training new mechanics. In 2019, a collaboration of manufacturers in western NC implemented this strategy to fill the job void and other similar efforts for training are slowly popping up around the country.
Not only will these actions fill the immediate need for a skilled workforce, but will ensure these trades continue for the next generation of job seekers. The window is shutting quickly and like most things ~ once it's gone, it will be hard to recover.