New Blood

By Jim Kaufmann, Contributing Editor

While 2020 is turning out to be a rather interesting year from any number of different perspectives, one perspective I’m actually glad to see is the large number of people who are beginning to understand that the textile industry truly is an “essential” business to the United States and the world. The advent of the global coronavirus pandemic has reiterated just how important textiles are to sustaining and protecting our everyday lives in a number of ways. Yet, the textile industry continues to instill a perception that often includes images of sweat shops, rusted out mills and dye houses, decrepit run down mill towns and low wages. Well, ok, the low wages one may still be a bit true, but regardless, the reality is that most in the general public still thinks of the U.S. textile industry as being dead, if not remnants from a by-gone era.

Now, given the realities of living through a global pandemic, imagine the look on the faces of people who thought textiles were irrelevant as they eventually realized that personal protective equipment (PPE), the variety of protective masks that many — including my niece — have started home sewing businesses to produce, as well as linens, bedding, and unfortunately even the body bags seen on the evening news, are all products of the textile industry. Lest we forget about the filter media in respirators, ventilators and clean air systems, the swabs for testing, the curtains and room dividers being used to separate patients, the list goes on and on. And it doesn’t take long to realize that the textile industry is far from dead; it is in fact a very integral part of our everyday lives. But the majority of those reading Textile World, already know that, at least I hope we do?

One of the most relevant lessons learned over the past several months is that while we really do live in a global economy, having a strong, efficient and competent localized supply chain is paramount to surviving any number of global challenges. The real question, and the purpose for the above commentary, is that many facets of the textile industry are certainly not dead, and in fact appear to be reinvigorated as many companies focused on essential product categories look to improve their local supply chains. So how do we in the industry keep this new found momentum moving forward?

And given this new attitude and a re-emphasis on a strong textiles supply chain, I think most would agree that this industry could definitely use an infusion of new faces, new business perspectives and new employees. Maybe even a new localized and even global marketing campaign to convince prospective workers and the public in general that the textile industry has in fact changed, or maybe evolved into an industry full of advanced technologies, incredibly diverse products, applications and much, much more than those old images, opinions and perceptions continue to portray.

Prior to this new era in which we currently reside, virtually anyone I spoke with throughout the textile industry supply chain expressed a need for “new blood” at pretty much every level from operators, technicians, engineers, chemists to industry and product savvy sales folks, managers and everything in between. But almost universally, the biggest need is for machine mechanics, fixers and technical types who actually understand textile machinery and have the experience and wherewithal to make the products run and machines hum.  Yep, the machine whisperers! The folks who can identify a problem just by listening to the machine run, then massage and coax it back to life with a subtle turn of a wrench or tap of a hammer or even simply a few choice words offered in a way that only the machine can understand. Unfortunately, the really good ones still working, if you can actually find them, are getting older and older. Of great concern is the fact that there are fewer and fewer young ’uns or apprentices coming in to fill the growing void.

Part of this ongoing challenge is that in addition to the negative perception of the textile industry, there continues to be the largely incorrect notion that you need to have a college degree to get a good job, and a stigma may be attached to someone choosing not to go to college. The perception and emphasis on the need of a college degree for recent generations has resulted in a reduction of people looking to the trades as a career option and with that it feels like something we used to refer to as “good common sense” has regrettably gone away … but that’s a subject for another article. We’ve all seen it demonstrated time and again that intelligence is not only the result of having a Bachelor’s, Masters or Ph.D.-level education and I will offer that many of the most intelligent down to earth people I’ve ever met are machine operators, mechanics and technicians who never went to college. They may not be able to recite a Shakespeare sonnet or spell Pythagorean theorem, but they typically have a common sense view of the world and understand how to get the most from their position in life.

Another item I was reminded of not too long ago is that a fairly high percentage of people currently working in textiles most likely have a parent or relative — in my case it was my father — who was working in the textile industry and got them interested. I really haven’t come across too many folks in textiles who found the industry intriguing enough to make textiles a career without having that personal connection. This also has to change. The question really becomes how do we reverse these trends and entice new folks, young and old alike, to give the textile industry a look as a potential career and maybe help to change that negative view that the industry carries?

Austin Conner, a project engineer at SAERTEX-USA in Huntersville, N.C., and recent graduate of the Wilson School of Textiles at North Carolina State University, said: “I think when a lot of young people hear the word ‘textiles’ or ‘textile manufacturing’ they think of old stuffy mills that people their grandparents age used to work in and a lot of people who were alive to see the textile industry get largely outsourced in the 80’s and 90’s still feel that there isn’t any job security. In order to lose this stigma, I think textile companies need to do a better job promoting the cool technologies and exciting textile applications they are a part of. Maybe use modern marketing strategies such as social media more effectively to promote their businesses. Although some of the industry’s technology is rooted in the old, there is plenty of new. And new is exciting to young people!”

“The textile industry is really about more than clothing, as evidenced by its ability to rapidly transition to the production of PPE in a time of crisis,” stated Dr. Chris Pastore, professor of Transdisciplinary Studies and Engineering at Jefferson University. “It is an industry that actually remains vibrant, is constantly pushing the bounds of technology and is people oriented, all the things that I’d be looking for in a new career path.”

“Another thought is to possibly incorporate basic fiber science and textile knowledge into entry level science courses,” Conner added. “Educate youngsters in high school and college about the fundamentals of textiles and their many uses. The fact that everyone wears clothes but many people don’t know anything about how they are made is crazy!”

Fortunately, there are a few organizations and individuals who have been listening and are taken up this effort to change perceptions of the textile industry and get more people interested in the opportunities it presents. Cotton Incorporated, the not for profit U.S. cotton research and promotions company, in partnership with Young Minds Inspired, recently created a series of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Program-focused teaching kits intended to engage 4th to 8th grade students and introduce them to cotton science and sustainability. Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) in Conover, N.C., and a long time champion of the textile industry, has been working with STEM Education departments at high schools for years to promote STEM tours of MSC and introduce students to various textile programs MSC supports. The Textile Technology Center at Gaston College has been offering and providing textile-based education programs and consulting to the industry for more than 75 years and continues to do so. As do higher education centers like North Carolina State University’s Wilson School of Textiles and Jefferson University, formerly the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences, both of which offer a variety of textiles focused programs with an eye towards the future. But as mentioned earlier, colleges and universities are not always for everyone, so we should also promote trade schools and apprentice programs as viable options throughout the textiles supply chain with as much passion as parents have been promoting the need for degrees.

We all know that the textile industry has and continues to remain a significant component of the global economy, but as the past several months have shown us, it is an essential business and worthy of that recognition. Here’s to hoping that the textiles supply chain uses this time in the spotlight to effectively foster an image change and get more young and old people alike interested in the variety of career options that the industry offers. We need that new blood and energy to help keep that spotlight shining bright or once again, we may find our industry and ourselves looking back and wondering what the heck happened?

June 25, 2020