By Jim Borneman, Editor In Chief
Mike Todaro — managing director of the Atlanta-based Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN) — is known for many things, but his prolific emailing truly stands out. Similar to clipping services of old, Mike identifies “in-the-news” items that fit the interests of AAPN members ranging from textiles and apparel to business issues and future trends.
This month, two articles shared by Todaro stood out in stark contrast. One, from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), titled “Los Angeles’ Garment Industry Frets Over Pay Hike,” highlighted the future challenges of a $15 minimum wage by 2020. The other article, “A World Without Work” by Derek Thompson and published on theatlantic.com, is an extensive look at the future of work and the effect of automation and other trends affecting the future of manufacturing jobs and more.
The WSJ piece noted that Los Angeles has a significant apparel-manufacturing base with an estimated 45,000 workers, which has been fairly level since 2001. “The Los Angeles Metro area employs twice as many manufacturing workers as the Chicago or Detroit regions, with better than one in eight of them in Los Angeles County working in the apparel industry,” reported the WSJ.
Thompson’s piece, on the other hand, faces the fact that the future of labor is on the verge of major change. Machines are smarter than ever, and they rarely make mistakes and never call in sick. Which makes one think, “Is it possible to automate apparel manufacturing?” The short answer is yes.
Those who attended the Synthetic Yarn and Fiber Association’s last meeting may have seen Softwear Automation Inc.’s Senior Vice President William T. Lockhart give a presentation titled “Robotic Innovations in Sewn Products.” Through industry collaboration and a series of significant grants, Softwear Automation is making great strides towards commercializing robotic technology that can reliably and accurately cut and sew garment. For a look at the technology in action, please see the product section of softwearautomation.com.
One has to wonder if raising the base pay rate by 50 percent over a five-year period — from $9 to $15 per hour — will hasten two outcomes — advance the development of automation and force work-place relocation.
The WSJ quotes Brian Zuckerman, CEO of contract apparel manufacturer 5 Thread Factory — a company that has outgrown its floor space twice in three years — with a direct answer to the wage hike question, “The simple answer to this whole conversation is we’re out of the city of L.A.”
The Board of Labor Statistics reported apparel manufacturing average hourly earnings of $16.88 in March 2015 with 36.8 average weekly hours. The earnings ranged from an average $9.29 per hour for sewing machine operators to $18.25 for supervisors and managers.
On the automation front, the spinning sector has reduced the labor cost component and increased productivity of today’s spinning mills such that the sector is attracting foreign direct invest to build new plants in the United States.
At $15 per hour, be careful what you wish for.