Survival or Meltdown: Execs Ponder Future Of U.S. Manufacturing

U.S. apparel production is being decimated by the explosive growth of imports, which have left the industry fighting for its life in Washington.

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The men’s and women’s suits he produces retail for $1,500 to $4,000, and typically go through two or three rounds of fitting and adjustments. Even with the back-and-forth, Ciccarelli’s factory delivers a finished suit in about 17 days — less time than it takes a container of apparel to travel from an Asian factory to the West Coast. Speed and the ability to work on one-off garments basically cuts Far Eastern manufacturers out of the loop.

Ciccarelli said he doesn’t know how manufacturers that have to compete directly with importers can keep up.

“Ready-to-wear manufacturing is finished in the U.S. There are very few left,” he said. “Most of them cannot compete.”

Ciccarelli admitted part of the reason his firm has succeeded in recent years is that many of its competitors have gone under, leaving his customers with fewer choices of suppliers.

The data on the decline of apparel manufacturing is dramatic. Apparel employment peaked in May 1973 at 1.5 million, according to Department of Labor statistics. At the end of June, there were 314,500 apparel manufacturing workers and 270,800 textile mill employees in the U.S., according to Labor. For the combined industries, that’s a 57.2 percent drop from the 886,600 apparel workers and 479,900 textile workers employed a decade earlier.

The decline of manufacturing in the U.S. has been long-term and not limited to the apparel and textile sectors. Also as of June, there were 14.7 million Americans employed in all manufacturing industries, off 4.2 percent from a year earlier. But the overall number of manufacturing workers has been up and down over the past decade and the June figure is only 12 percent lower than it had been in June 1993.

In apparel and textile manufacturing, the rate of job loss has been accelerating. After experiencing single-digit percentage decreases for most of the Nineties, in 2001 employment dropped 12.8 percent, in 2002 it was off 14.8 percent and in 2003 it fell 10.6 percent, or 295,200 jobs lost in three years.

This belies an industry belief commonly held through the Eighties and Nineties that the domestic manufacturing sector would shrink down to a core critical mass that would be needed to turn orders quickly and fulfill some particularly high-end orders.
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