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Creating High-Quality Jobs in the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry

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by Dr. Sheng Lu

 
Headshot of Dr. Sheng Lu, Assistant Professor, Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, University of Delaware

​Dr. Sheng Lu, Assistant Professor, Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies

​Earlier this semester, I assigned students in my FASH455 (Global Apparel and Textile Trade and Sourcing) class a special assignment: ask strangers for their views about the state of the U.S. textile and apparel industry. Sadly, but not surprisingly, students said they often heard comments like, “Does the U.S. still have a textile industry?”, “All factories are now closed…” or, “Everything is made overseas today, and jobs are gone." However, these common misconceptions are far from the truth.

Most low-end and labor-intensive apparel manufacturing has moved overseas in the past decades as a result of globalization. Yet, textile manufacturing, especially the making of capital and technology-intensive fibers, yarns, fabrics, and technical textiles, remains a strong presence in the United States. Statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show that the value of U.S. textile manufacturing totaled $54 billion in 2016, an increase of 14% from 2009. Also overlooked is the indispensable contribution of the textile and apparel industry to job creation in the United States. Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that the U.S. textile and apparel industry still directly employs close to 2 million people today.

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Label indicating sweater was made in Mexico of USA fabric

​The robust growth of the sector also benefits educational programs like ours. According to a recent post-graduate career survey, for the two majors we offer in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware, the employment rate of the class of 2015 and 2016 is as high as 89% for Apparel Design and 96% for Fashion Merchandising.

To continue to create high-quality jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry, two important trends are worth watching.

First, international trade will be a critical driver for future jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry. Notably, in 2016, the value of U.S. textile and apparel exports exceeded $22.1 billion, up 34% from 2009. Over one-third of U.S.-made fibers and yarns are sold in overseas markets today, such as Mexico and countries in Central America. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United States remains the fourth largest textile exporter in the world, with products destined for more than 50 countries in 2016. Data from the U.S. Trade Representative Office (USTR) further shows that jobs supported by exported goods typically pay 13-18% more than the U.S. national average.

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Graph depicting demand for human talent in U.S. textile and apparel industry: 2017-2022

​Source: 2017 US Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study. U.S. Fashion Industry Association

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​Second, many future high-quality jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel industry will be non-manufacturing in nature and supply-chain based. In a study that I conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Fashion Industry Association this May, around 80% of respondents, executives from leading U.S. fashion brands and apparel retailers, say they plan to hire more employees in the next five years. Interestingly, respondents suggest that four types of positions — supply chain specialists, data scientists, sourcing specialists, and marketing analysts — will be the most in-demand, whereas companies are least likely to hire sewing machine operators and general management administrators in the same time frame. The contrasting demand for talent in various positions reflects business priorities of companies in the years ahead, along with the continuing structural readjustment of the U.S. textile and apparel industry.

Not only is the U.S. textile and apparel industry adapting to the 21st century, but it holds a promising future for America’s workforce, providing opportunities to students that span from design, merchandising, and marketing to sourcing and international trade.

Sheng Lu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.

Follow him on Twitter @shenglu27.

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Dr. Sheng Lu, Assistant Professor in the University's Department of Fashion and Apparel studies at UD, discusses workforce trends in the 21st Century and the fashion industry's structural adaptation.
11/28/2017
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