Textiles reviving in South

02/12/2014 8:03 PM

02/12/2014 8:04 PM

American workers might have made the mop you waltz around the kitchen floor, your favorite bath towel or your facial wipes. Surprised? Decades after many people thought the U.S. textile industry was dead, the industry generated $54 billion in shipments in 2012 and employed about 233,000 people.

Business is on the upswing as Southern states, in particular, woo textile companies with tax breaks, reliable utilities, modern ports and airports, and a dependable, trained and nonunion workforce.

In 2013, companies in Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Switzerland, as well as in the U.S., announced plans to open or expand textile plants in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The workers produce yarn, thread and fabric for apparel, furnishings, home products and industrial use. Examples include Huggies and Pampers diapers, Swiffer mops and Pledge furniture wipes, according to David Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.

“Textiles manufacturing – yarn, fabric, woven and nonwoven – is still here and growing,” said A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. “We’re selling cotton yarn cheaper than the Chinese.”

True, textile manufacturing in the U.S. dropped precipitously in the 1990s and 2000s as cheaper labor drew jobs overseas. Automation and increased productivity of textile mills also cost jobs. More than 200,000 textile manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation in the past decade.

Textiles, mostly cotton, once dominated the economy of the South. Employment peaked in June 1948 with 1.3 million jobs. In North Carolina, 40 percent of its jobs were in textile and apparel manufacturing in 1940. By 2013, 1.1 percent of that state’s jobs were in textiles.

About 650 textile plants closed between 1997 and 2009, draining thousands of jobs and depressing communities.

But rising wages in China and other countries, combined with higher transportation costs and tariffs, have prompted foreign and domestic companies to consider American manufacturing sites. Also, with more consumers looking for the “Made in the USA” label, some companies are turning to American goods. Wal-Mart, for example, pledged last year to buy $50 billion over a decade in American-made products, among them towels and washcloths.

More than a third of all textile jobs were located in Georgia and North Carolina in 2012, and that’s where many of the jobs are being created. The new plants are nothing like the dusty, noisy mills of the past.

These highly automated plants require far fewer – but more tech-savvy – workers who earn higher pay than their forebears. The average textile wage in the U.S. in 2012 was $37,900, compared with $60,496 for all manufacturing jobs. In North Carolina, the average textile wage was $33,219, up from $28,216 in 2002.

One challenge these days is getting young people interested in textile factory work, experts said. One mill owner has started bringing middle school students in for tours to show them how technologically advanced the facilities are.

In Lancaster County, textile mills owned by the Springs family were dominant employers for 120 years, with about 11,000 workers in the 1970s and 1980s. The family sold the company to a Brazilian company in 2005, and the last mill in South Carolina closed in 2007, taking the remaining 3,500 jobs to Brazil.

“It left a crater,” said Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation. “Then the recession came – a double hit.” Unemployment soared to 18.6 percent in June 2009.

About 21 months ago, the South Carolina Department of Commerce told Tunnell that a cotton spinning company was looking for a U.S. manufacturing site. “I was stunned,” he said. Even more surprising: The company is Chinese.

Competition for the plant among the states ended in December when Keer Group announced it will invest $218 million to build a 230,000-square-foot yarn factory and create 501 jobs within five years in Lancaster County.

“We chose to locate our first U.S. facility in South Carolina for a number of reasons, which include the state’s workforce, proximity to cotton producers and access to the port” in Charleston, said Keer chairman Zhu Shanqing, according to news reports.

South Carolina gave Keer a $4 million Rural Infrastructure Grant, and the county development corporation offered an additional $7.7 million bond to attract the company. Keer agreed to pay workers at least $13.25 an hour, the average manufacturing wage rate in Lancaster County.

The Keer jobs are nowhere nearly enough to replace the old textile jobs, but are welcome news in a county of 79,000 where the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.

Tunnell hopes to attract more Chinese companies. What can he share with other state and local officials?

“If any community that was hit as hard as we were is looking to Washington, D.C., to fix your problems, you’re wasting your time. Tip O’Neill said all politics is local,” Tunnell said, referring to the late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts. “I say all economic development is local.”

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