Employment Trends in Textiles and Apparel, 1973-2005

By Mittelhauser, Mark | Monthly Labor Review, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Employment Trends in Textiles and Apparel, 1973-2005


Mittelhauser, Mark, Monthly Labor Review


Increased globalization and new technology were leading factors in recent employment declines; although the declines are expected to continue, the industries will remain an important provider of jobs, employing 1.3 million workers in 2005

Every industry in the American economy has been affected in some way by increased globalization and new developments in technology. Few, however, have felt the effects of these trends more acutely than the textiles and apparel industries. Indeed, these factors have been the primary reasons for the almost continuous employment decline in the industries for nearly 25 years. In 1973, for example, there were more than 2.4 million textile and apparel workers employed in the United States; by 1996, that figure had dropped to 1.5 million. This 39-percent decline contrasts with the 8-percent decline among all manufacturing workers, and the 56-percent rise in employment among all workers over the same period. In addition, job losses appear to be intensifying in the textile and apparel industries, and are projected to continue in the coming decade.(1)

While much of the job loss resulted from textile mills and apparel factories going out of business in the face of fierce domestic and international competition, a significant part of the decrease was caused by efforts made by companies to survive. In the past few decades, textile and apparel companies have been struggling to reinvent themselves. By investing in new technologies, merging to reduce costs, employing offshore plants to perform certain operations, and developing new products and services, they have been attempting to find a niche in the international market. According to some measures, they have been successful, as production has remained stable and many companies have been profitable. On the basis of other measures, however--such as employment and foreign trade balances--they have not fared as well.

What emerges from recent changes in the international economy and the domestic textile and apparel industries is a complex picture of job loss and survival strategies. This dynamic is likely to increase in the coming years, as international trade continues to grow. As a result, employment declines are expected to continue. Still, as many firms adapt to the changes, the textile and apparel industries will remain an important provider of jobs, with employment projected to be more than 1.3 million in the year 2005.(2) This article examines employment trends in the textile and apparel industries, reviewing the likely causes of both the recent historical and projected declines, their varied effects across occupational groups, and the response American producers have developed to adapt to rapidly changing economic realities. It attempts to sketch how the industry and its workers will fare in an uncertain and rapidly changing future.(3)

The two industries

Although the terms "textile industry" and "apparel industry" often are used interchangeably, they represent two distinct, albeit closely related, industries.(4) The two industries are important links in the chain of production and distribution responsible for providing consumers with clothing as well as a number of other products. Textile mills not only manufacture yarn, thread, and fabric for clothing, but also such products as carpeting, automotive upholstery, fire hoses, cord, and twine. The major processes in these highly automated mills include yarn spinning, weaving, knitting, tufting, and nonwoven production. Although employment is widely distributed throughout the different sectors of the industry, most workers are involved in the manufacture of products eventually used to make apparel. In 1996, the textile industry employed 624,000 workers (table 1), with the majority working in three States: Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.(5) Also, nearly half of the textile workers employed in 1996 were women.(6)

Table 1
Employment in the textile and apparel Industries, 1996

[In thousands]

Industry title                          Employment

Textile mill products                     624
  Weaving, finishing, yam, and
   thread mills                           332
  Knitting mills                          180
  Carpets and rugs                        61
  Miscellaneous textile goods             51

Apparel and other textile products        864
  Apparel                                 643
  Miscellaneous fabricated
   textile products                       221

Apparel workers, on the other hand, convert fabrics produced by the textile industry into clothing and other finished goods, eventually to be sold on the retail market. …

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