You need to start manufacturing yourself. Period.

A recent news story from Marketplace Money titled Double-digit unemployment? These firms can’t find workers bolsters my all too frequent lament that we are critically short on domestic production resources and with no improvement in sight. Here’s an excerpt:

When local fashion firm Pinup Girl Clothing tried to ramp up production of its vintage-inspired apparel recently it hit a snag: It couldn’t find anyone to do the work. The company spent a year trying to add 12 people to its 32-person manufacturing team in downtown Los Angeles. As the search dragged on, Pinup Girl fell two months back in its production schedule.

Do read the entry, call it confirmation bias but this is nothing new. I’ve been talking about critical labor shortages in US sewing factories for years. Years. I feel vindicated that someone in the media has finally heard but not enough have. For example, anyone who complains that sewing contractors don’t make it easy to find them, hasn’t been listening. It’s not a buyer’s market and hasn’t been for a very long time (they mostly don’t need for you to find them). Anyway, the media is hip to the worker shortage problem in the apparel industry so let’s hope new entrants to the business figure it out quickly too. As I’ve said more times than I can count, those who will succeed over the next ten years are those who will develop their own in house sewing operation. And I know well that statement will alienate a lot of people but it’s the truth. You don’t have to open a big honking facility; it’s amazing what one or two stitchers can put out.

In this vein, I was consulting last week with someone I’ll call Laura who is looking for another contractor.  She is confounded that she’s willing to place at least 6,000 units (value of approximately $80,000) with someone every month but nobody wants it. She can only find a back up contractor who said he’d take 2,000 but he doesn’t want to be her main supplier. She’s puzzled that she’s got money to burn and nobody wants it. Would you like to know what I told her? I thought you might, this is a partial summary:

You know that facilities have limited capacity but you reason that with a nice contract, the contractor could expand and grow their business so of course they’ll welcome you with open arms. Problem is, you’re thinking what you would do but you’re young while most of them (us) are closer to retirement age or past it.  Their capacity is tied to internal capitalization. This means cutting equipment, square footage, sewing machines and of course, the human capital to run it all.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just talk about one problem, that of cutting fabric. If their cutting capacity is already stretched thin, your lot would push it to an unsustainable level. Meaning, they’d probably have to buy a CAM cutter and get some software. If someone is thinking “exit strategy” rather than “expansion”, they are not stupid or so crazy as to pull $125,000 out of what amounts to their retirement money (if they have it) to buy equipment that they won’t be able to sell in the short term. They sure won’t want to take a loan out on it because they won’t be able to get their money out of it. That’s because they don’t know anybody who wants to buy their business because nobody -not just you- wants to run a sewing factory. So they will limit investing in business expansion because there is nobody or not enough people who want to do the work. Oh, and the whole reason I mention the CAM system? It’s because they can’t find enough workers. You know, the whole thing we opened with. First, they can’t find the labor and being as busy as they are, can’t afford to invest in training.

That’s the synopsis of my conversation with Laura. While not the solution they were hoping for, I think she and her husband are very excited (albeit intimidated) by the prospect of opening their own shop. First they have to learn to sew themselves but it’s not insurmountable. DEs do it every day. The point is, we got into this mess because a lot of companies sent work overseas so all the local shops closed up (that’s also in the article). Those workers found other jobs.  Unfortunately, now that we need those workers again -because of rising costs offshore- we don’t have them anymore. Few young people want the work, they’ve been taught that factory work is beneath them. The only ones who do want it and who still have skills, are immigrants. [It is crazy that in this economy, with double digit unemployment, we need more immigration to solve a worker problem.] I don’t know anyone who is running with a full staff. I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with their staffing. Me, I’ve given up. I’ve become reconciled that I can never expand. Sure people want to work for me -so they can get training and then go out on their own or riffle my rolodex- but I don’t get a return on training.

So today, I was having a conversation with somebody else about why the contractor market has tightened up so much. -and it mostly has to do with the internet. Buyers these days don’t want to place orders for stuff to be delivered 6 months out, especially from a new company. They want immediates. This means 2-6 week turn around on an order. There is no way you can make those delivery time frames going off shore. And the reason why they want short term is because the internet has changed consumer expectations and buying habits. They see something on TV or the runway and they want to buy it right away. They don’t want to wait for that trend to trickle down six months from now. The long and short of it is, the bigger brands are trying to bring their production back too so they’re taking what production slots there are which leaves less for you. Before, a big brand’s 16 month lead time was okay because their selling proposition was based on branding and lower prices. Today, buyers want products quickly; it’s speed to market. You know, like Zara. I’ve written a lot about that too.

This is the redux:  the situation is not improving. It is useless to complain you can’t find contractors (especially if you’re not going about it the right way) so you’ll have to consider the implications of a longer term commitment than you’d planned on.

You really need to read the earlier entries in this series ( why you should start your own sewing factory pt.1 and pt.2), not just gloss over the hyperlinks. I think we should be discussing how to train sewing operators, pay rates, how to set up your factory, what are the parameters of determining the equipment you need etc -all of which I’ve also written of many many times before and it just seems nobody is listening. I’d leave the links again but would anyone follow them? I mean, anyone other than the parties who recycle my content into their own words to generate profits for themselves but leave scant (if any) clues as to where they got it? If you’d read them, they’re at the close of the factory posts, especially part two. Actually, looking over that one,  I apologize in advance that the factory pt.2 post  is so link intensive. If you lament at how long it will take you to read it all, just imagine how long it took me to write it.

So that’s where I think we should be going. I sense that we’re at a crossroads now. Sure there are tons of people who will continue to chase production and be forced to commit to larger production runs than they have sales to back it up with so they’ll be out, but long term? The people who make it are the ones who open up their own factories. And you should know something else too. The people who still know how to do that sort of thing aren’t common, accessible -or young. I think I have I spoiled you. Hardly anyone asks me about how to set up a production line. Nobody asks me questions about how to train sewing operators or how to set up a factory -they think I’m “just a pattern maker”. Somebody actually said that to me. I don’t know what’s more insulting, someone who thinks the latter or someone who uses all the resources I’ve provided so they can resell the content and siphon off a part of my market (in this case, the same person). Me and my friends won’t be around forever and some day it’ll be too late. Your sources of institutional knowledge will be gone.

Me, I’ve been waiting a long time for people to be interested in these things again. I do not understand how on one hand, we can lament the lack of access to production services but at the same time, be single-mindedly incurious about it. Tangentially related, we had a ribald debate on Facebook over what people presume is a business’ responsibility to train new workers yet from my experience, it is apparent that too few are interested in training for themselves -as in the paragraph above. Which was kind of my point. You can’t force people to learn in order to provide a service you want or get them to learn what you think they should learn. I mean, if I can’t get DEs interested in it (topics in the above paragraph), why do some of them presume contractors are deficient if they cannot find ways to compel new entrants to acquire training?

If you read the earlier entries on why you should start your own sewing factory, the comments -however disputatious- are also required reading.

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  1. Skylier, even though you already have years of business experience, consider buying Kathleen’s book (no, I don’t get a cut), as it give you access to her members forum. If you think her general blogs and resulting conversations are great, you’ll fall off your chair over what the professionals discuss.

    Or you could accomplish the same thing with a donation of the same value, but why not get the book as part of the deal?

  2. Nick says:

    Ive been following this website/forum for about a year now more as student/learner/spy than participator/advocator. I own a modern boutique garment house (9 Industrial machines and all essential production tools) in Costa Mesa, CA. We’ve been established for just 6 months and clients bang on our doors in excitement. Ive always believed in the “reawakening” of the Fashion & Apparel Industry in America and today its all about being the special resource to foster the next wave of fashion designers and small businesses. End-user consumer tastes in fashion & apparel products are constantly fast-changing and variably many in perpetuity, but Made in USA is back. The quality, knowledgable help is there. Young fresh formally-educated fashion & art students want to sew production jobs & gain business acumen from witnessing clients enter the office and contract w/ us. We dont emulate or promote the sweat-shop type working environment at our shop, because we are the furthest operation from that old-mentality. We are clean, creative, talented, inspired, thriving on a common goal to be living amd working as a production member of one of the best and strongest Industries on the globe. Our facility, of course it is first and always will be a work facility for a real business, feels like a warm living space, a creative workshop. The “re-shoring” boom that everyone makes out to be some sort of ‘sonic’ one doesnt exist in any industry, especially an old one like our clothing trade. The real “boom” — and its happening now — is slow, healthy, gradual, increasing and in perfect tune & tension with the markets for which it is a golden resource. We specialize in 50-1000pc, our MOQs are small and quite honestly I learn something NEW and valuable everyday working with clients because their projects/cases are specific and meticulous for the simple reason that they are NOT supplying or trying to deliver or sell to a mass market consumer. Therefore the dynamics work. Of course we service the simple sewing tickets, but we exist to serve the fashion & apparel businesses that are working hard. So many cool things are happening right now, its really fascinating to even be a part of it all.
    I love talking shop so if anyone out there wants to chat, I’ll definitely be clicking the Notify button.

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