Is Local Industry History?

By Don Granese

Alamance County has long been an area where industry not only succeeded, it thrived. Burlington in particular was a main hub of the American textile industry for the greater part of the 20th century. But Alamance County and the United States in a larger sense have changed. No longer are we a society driven by manual labor and the exportation of goods. We have become a nation of consumers, and in this we may have possibly killed the ‘made in America’ concept.

According to Jim Barbour, the chair of the Economics Department at Elon University, we are a nation that has changed for the best, or at least we’ve changed for what best suits us today. Manual labor jobs like working in mills or on farms have become a thing of the past for most American families. Agriculture, much like mill and factory work, is an industry that drove our economy for a long period of time.

“We went from the 19th to the 20th century. Roughly 60 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture,”Barbour said “It is less than 3 percent now. Do we really want 60 percent of the population engaged in agriculture right now?”

Working in agriculture may have been an average American job in the past, but now those jobs have moved overseas. According to the United States Department of Agriculture the amount of processed grain that we import from other nations has nearly doubled from 2002 to 2007.

In the specific example of the textile industry in Burlington, Barbour believes that it’s not the fault of the ‘fat cat’ business owners that manufacturing jobs have moved to other countries, but that the blame can easily be traced back to us, the American consumers.

“You and I wear inexpensive shirts at the cost of people who’ve been laid off in this area and we owe them,” he explained. “But the way to repay them is not to preserve the expensive shirt.”

A considerable push in America is to buy “local”. At first it seemed like a trend. Buying local was something that the young and hip were doing. But economically, buying local is more than a trend; it’s a tactic and a form of survival. This is where local business can get creative in their advertising.

Worker at the Se7en plant owned by Burlington Technologies

Companies like Glencoe Mills in Burlington, NC that expanded too quickly in the 20th century weren’t able to find their footing and they collapsed in the early 1950’s. But some survived. In Burlington the textile industry had almost completely dried up, but some companies like Glenn Raven Mills, Holt Hosiery and Burlington Industries have found a way to continue manufacturing their goods.

Burlington Technologies is not too big of a company, but they are making headlines with their recent expansions. In the current economic state of our country not many companies are growing, but with the help of a large grant of about $120,000 Burlington Technologies will more than double its workforce of textile manufacturers. Currently they employ about 90 workers, but the grant will help them take on about 110 more. “It’s really just an opportunity to save some jobs,” explained Marvin Gaines, the co-owner of the company. His business has made it through tough economic times because they are able to adapt with changing industry trends. He believes they have a few tricks up their sleeves.

“We feel like we have a business model that the Chinese do not want. and that is making…if you want 30 yards, we’ll make you 30 yards of a custom color, custom pattern” said Marvin “That’s not something the Chinese or Asian or South American (markets) wants to mess with because you have to ship it overseas.”

The weaving machines at the Se7en plant

Barbour thinks that companies like Burlington Technologies can hang on through tough times because they can find their strengths in creativity. “There are smaller organizations that have done well by specializing in some little niche market,” he explains “and they’ve managed to do quite well at these things.”

Gaines explained that his company’s greatest strength has been their ability to design and then create interesting patterns for fabrics that people will find new and on the cutting edge of style. But he feels as though the style choices aren’t necessarily their own decisions. They’re forced to go with the trending fashion flow. They’ve started having to make custom orders for individual buyers just to keep profit margins going up. “That is a niche that has kind of been imposed on us but it’s something we’ve embraced that keeps us around for the future,” Gaines said.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a severe decline in job opportunities for Americans trained to work in textiles. In the 1990’s textiles was the largest manufacturing employer in the U.S. economy, providing jobs for nearly 1.4 million workers up until even 1999. This included employment in textile production, wool growing, cotton growers, apparels, and man-made fibers. According to the NCTO (National Council of Textile Organizations) as of June 2010 only 412,000 Americans are currently employed in textiles.

Bo Chrisco, Burlington Technologies

Bo Chrisco, who works for Marvin Gaines at Burlington Technologies, is one of those Americans. “We’ve taken a 20 percent cut in pay, lost a lot of benefits,” Chrisco said. “You know at one time I had as many as four weeks of vacation time and now it’s nothing…no vacation time.”

Chrisco is well aware that his industry is shrinking. When he started working at the Se7en plant in Guilford County the building was packed from wall to wall with machines that weave the yarn into fabric. Today half of the working floor that he is stationed on is completely empty.

Despite the visible cutbacks, Chrisco is determined to hold this job. “I’ve had a job offer here or there talking to people and I made the decision to stay,” Chrisco said. “I’m hopeful that it will pick up because this is where most of my experience in life has been… in textiles.”

According to Jim Barbour there is a chance for the industry to pick up. It’s not a new business model, but it’s just simple creativity. Barbour explains that if business owners like Marvin Gaines keep up with today’s fashion trends that customers will keep buying from American textile producers. “Textiles as previously practiced in Alamance county are destined to fail. Textiles practiced in new ways may succeed.”

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