Labor shortage?

As obvious as it may be -assuming you’ve been stymied in your efforts to find a sewing contractor- you may still be surprised to know that the apparel industry is suffering from a labor shortage. I spoke last week with Michael Londrigan of SAI (Social Accountability Intl) and we discussed the issue at length. Today, I spoke with Debra Goodwin at GIDC (Garment Industry Development Corporation) who concurs. The root problems are myriad but everyone agrees that most of the shortage is due to laid off workers having secured other employment after the downturn. Of course the NY industry faces other critical challenges, specifically acquiring leases and escalating rents. Accordingly, the GIDC has to be more proactive offering vocation and technical training classes -free. Debra mentions the classes are always overbooked, particularly the sample making classes.

Anyway, Michael initially contacted me about about a new initiative, a collaboration between SAI, GIDC and Systain in an attempt to manage the problem saying in part (full doc):

Key to maintaining a vibrant design and fashion industry in New York are the workers – especially skilled workers. Cost-cutting by garment producers and little to no investment in worker skill training, means the industry is now experiencing a skills shortage. Nevertheless, interviews with workers and enrollment rates for GIDC´s vocational training courses indicate that workers are interested in improving their skills and ability to perform in the industry. GIDC/SAI surveys of workers (2005) indicate that, despite the low wages, garment-factory worker respondents like the flexibility in their jobs provided by employers who value their craft. Improving factory management of production and their ability to attract orders can help stabilize production across the year; this is key for attracting and retaining more workers who are looking for stable, annual income. One factory owner posits that such improvements could help his workers earn 50% more – enough for them to no longer ask for partial payment in cash.

Working intensively with a small group of New York City garment producers to provide in-depth training and technical assistance (TA) to both managers and workers SAI, GIDC, and Systain propose to:

  1. improve working conditions,
  2. improve factory management and service delivery,
  3. sharpen workers´ skills and ability to give input to management on factory improvements, and
  4. work with factories to develop an innovative business model for improving production and services and to assist them in obtaining financing to upgrade equipment & plant.


What surprised me once I started looking, is that the apparel industry labor shortage appears to be international. If that’s the case, one positive outcome is that it is conceivable that demand will slowly eliminate sweatshops. First from India:

India : Export garment units in Erode district face paucity of tailors

Exporters here get orders worth about Rs1,000 crore annually but are unable to execute the orders due to unavailability of tailors here.
…till 2004 we used to export readymade goods worth only Rs 100 crore. We now execute orders worth Rs 250 crore. But we cannot meet bulk orders owing to manpower shortage,” ..

And then surprisingly, China:

China : Garment industry faces shortage of skilled workers
Each year Chinese garment enterprises face shortage of sewing workers, this year being the most. In order to find skilled workers, companies adopt recruitment ways like the newspaper, labor markets, and many factories employ directly at their own factory entrance. Shaoxing, Hangzhou and Wenzhou cities in Zhejiang and Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and some other provinces are facing scarcity of workers for clothing industry.

In the case of China’s labor problem, apparel production will increasingly be compounded by demographic factors.

China Scrambles for Stability as Its Workers Age

The proportion of people 60 and older is growing faster in China than in any other major country, …By midcentury, according to United Nations projections, roughly 430 million people — about a third of the population — will be retirees.

That increase will place enormous demands on the country’s finances and could threaten the underpinnings of the Chinese economy, which has thrived for decades on the cheap labor of hundreds of millions of young, uneducated workers from the countryside.

Michael asked me if I was doing anything to deal with the problem. I told him that all I could do was encourage people to start up contract facilities rather than design operations and to suggest they hire whatever retired workers they could get to train them and get their enterprises going. This is the reality in the outlands of the US and Canada. So, if you’re interested in starting up a production shop, definitely get in touch with your local incubator for start up resources. And let me know too. I provide referrals as I’m able.

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8 comments

  1. Sri Lanka probably enjoy the best working conditions in Asia. Yet the labour shortage among participating companies were found to be over 10% in 2005, when the EU funded SME Apparel project completed its Benchmarking phase. It ammounted to over 30,000 unfilled positions according to industry estimates. All this while unemployment rate exceeding 7%.

  2. This problem is also in the UK.

    Factories close & the employees re-train in other industries &/or take other jobs, & therefore lose their skills. Burberry has just closed a factory in Wales & some of these factory employees are retraining in ‘plastering’!!

    Thus, the skills are lost or forgotten…

  3. ALLISON says:

    OK WELL, I AM GLAD THAT YOU ARE TOUCHING UPON THIS TOPIC!!
    REALLY WHAT IS GOING ON IS THAT ALL THE WORK HAS GONE OFF-SHORE. AND THAT IS WHY THERE IS NO SKILLED LABOR AROUND!!!!!! THE REAL KEY TO FIXING THIS PROBLEM IS EITHER:

    A. GETTING THESE QUOATA SAFEGUARDS APPLIED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!!!

    B. EVERYBODY NEEDS TO RETOOL THEIR FOCUS ON SMALLER PEOPLE GETTING UP AND RUNNING!!!! BECAUSE REALLY THIS IS THE ONLY ANSWER RIGHT NOW. WE ARE GETTING AGE GAPS IN MANY SECTORS WITH REGARD TO SKILL LEVEL.

    WE NEED TO KEEP MANUFACTURING!!!!IN THE USA !!
    IT IS THE HEARTBEAT OF AMERICA!!!!!!!! PERIOD.
    AND IF I SEE ANOTHER 10 MILE LINE OF HANJIN TRAVELING THROUGH TOWN I DON’T KNOW WHAT I AM GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF!

    AND ANOTHER THING THAT IS A HUGE PROBLEM IS THE GARMENT MANUFACTURERS LISC. IN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA!!!!!!!IT IS WAY TO EXPENSIVE AT $750.00 A YEAR WITH NO SALES YET!!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE PICTURE!!????? CALIFORNIA????? ONCE THIS GETS UP AND GOING I PLAN TO TAKE MY SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS TO ANOTHER STATE!!!!! AS SOON AS POSSIBLE !!!!

  4. Thomas Cuningham says:

    The shortage of skilled workers in men’s coats/suits couldn’t be more acute. Within a few years all the skilled operators will be dead or retired and then who will train the newcomers? It seems as though NOBODY is interested in working in a factory anymore.

  5. Vesta says:

    Allison, your idealism about producing in the US is naive. It’s a very easy thing to say. It’s a very difficult thing to maintain, as sales grow and your customers expect consistent price, quality, and delivery. But I expect that you’ll figure that out for yourself if you stay in the business. I’ve come to realize that the only way I can produce in the US is to set up my own shop. But I’m just one woman, and just can’t do it at this point.

    RE: India, the factories that I inspected were staffed by “tailors” who were making good careers out of it (full benefits, pensions, etc). I discussed this with the owner of one factory, and he said he never hires unskilled people (let alone children, lol). That makes me think the market must not be too tight in Northern India. As a weird aside that I wasn’t prepared for: they were all men! I was told that you would see women tailors in the South (which is more progressive), but in the North, I only saw women in the inspection rooms . . . and in management. Plenty in management. :-P

  6. A says:

    Over here in Spain there is a similar shortage of skilled labour, resulting in a lowering of the quality of the finished product as unskilled workers are used.
    This is not limited to the sowing factories; the whole industrial fabric of the Fashion industry has been mortally wounded & is most probably now beyond help. Much like some animal species on the verge of extinction the industry has got to a point where it is no longer capable of regeneration.

  7. Grace says:

    The problem is even more acute in my industry.
    There is a need for roughly twice as many workers at my age and skill level as are currently working. It takes about 4 years to earn a BS and another 5-10 to earn a PhD. This is not a problem that will be solved overnight.

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