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Nature of the Work
* Most workers are trained on-the-job; those in firms which use modular manufacturing systems that emphasize teamwork are cross-trained in all operations performed by their team.
* Employment of apparel workers is expected to decline due to increased imports, offshore assembly, and labor-saving machinery.
* Earnings of most apparel workers are very low.
Apparel workers help to keep us warm, comfortable, and in style. They play this important role in our lives by transforming cloth, leather, and fur into clothing and other consumer products. Many apparel workers also repair and alter these products. (Some items that we think of as apparel, such as socks or pantyhose, are produced in knitting mills. Workers who are employed in these factories are classified as textile rather than as apparel workers. A separate statement on textile machinery operators is presented in this section of the Handbook.)
Apparel production begins with a designer's creation that has been made into a sample product. (A separate statement on designers is presented elsewhere in the Handbook.) Because many of these goods are to be mass produced, a pattern of the product must be developed. This is usually done with the aid of a computer. After a design is made, sample makers produce the sample garment for the designer.
Once the pattern has been created, the fabric must be spread and cut. Many layers of material may be spread on the cutting table, depending on the quantity being produced and the type of material. Workers known as markers must determine the best arrangement or layout of the pattern pieces to minimize waste. In many plants, this step depends on the judgment of the worker, but computers increasingly are used to determine the optimum arrangement of the pattern pieces.
Using an electric knife or other cutting tool, other workers cut out the various pieces of material following the outline of the pattern. On especially delicate or valuable items, this may be done by hand. Workers must pay close attention to detail because a mistake in the cutting process can ruin many yards of material. In more automated firms, electronic copies of layouts are sent to computer-controlled cutting machines that are monitored by cutting machine operators.
Once the material has been cut, it is ready to be sewn together into a shirt, knapsack, dress, or other product. Most sewing is done by sewing machine operators, who are classified by the type of machine and product on which they work. The most basic division is between sewing machine operators who produce clothing and those who produce nongarment items such as towels, sheets, and curtains. Both garment and nongarment machine operators usually specialize in a single operation, such as bindings, collars, or hems. Because each product requires a variety of sewing operations that cannot be done on the same machine, companies producing apparel have many types of specialized sewing machines.
Some materials may be sewn by hand rather than by machine due to their value and delicacy. Hand sewers may specialize in a particular operation, such as sewing buttonholes or adding lace or other trimming. They also work with the designer to make a sample of a new product.
When sewing operations have been completed, workers remove loose threads, basting stitching, and lint from the finished product. Although final inspection of the product is usually done at this time, inspectors are found in all stages of the production process. They mark defects in uncut fabric so that layout workers can position the pattern to avoid them, or they mark defects in semi-finished garments, which they may repair themselves or send back to be mended. (For a more detailed discussion, see the statement on inspectors, testers, and graders elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Pressers ensure that finished products are free of wrinkles. Some pressers specialize in a particular garment part; others do the final pressing before the product is shipped to the store. Pressing may be done by hand, but it is more likely to be performed by specially-designed, steam pressing machines that are much more productive than hand pressing.
A large number of apparel workers are employed by small firms that lack the capital resources to invest in new, more efficient equipment. Because of this and the difficulty of automating the assembly process, the nature of the work for many apparel workers has remained relatively unchanged. Nevertheless, in larger firms with modern facilities, some operations are computerized, and some of the product-moving operations are performed by automated material handling systems.
In addition, many firms use another workplace innovationthe modular manufacturing systemto increase product quality while reducing production time. In this system, operators work together in a module or team; in the older bundle system, each work performed a specific operation on a piece of fabric as it moved through the factory in a bundle. Although each worker in the modular system usually specializes in one operation, most are cross-trained in the various operations performed by their team so that they can fill in for other workers. Not only do operators communicate more with other workers in the new system, they are given added responsibilities, including correcting problems, scheduling, and monitoring standards.
Not all apparel goods are mass produced, however. Some people prefer clothing made especially for them. Custom tailors make garments from start to finish by taking measurements and helping the customer select the right fabric and design. These workers are highly skilled and must be knowledgeable in all phases of clothing production. Many work in retail outlets, including laundries and dry-cleaning establishments, where they make alterations and adjustments to ready-to-wear clothing.
Working conditions in apparel production vary by establishment and by occupation. Older factories tend to be congested and poorly lit and ventilated, but more modern facilities are usually better planned, have more work space, and are well-lit and ventilated. Due to the nature of the work and the machinery being used, sewing and pressing areas are usually noisy, whereas patternmaking and spreading areas are quieter. Laundries and dry-cleaning establishments are often hot and noisy; retail stores, on the other hand, tend to be relatively quiet and comfortable.
Most persons in apparel occupations work a standard 5-day, 35- to 40-hour week. Some apparel manufacturers add second shifts to justify the expense of new machinery. Also, those employed in retail stores and in laundry and dry-cleaning establishments may work evenings and weekends.
Apparel production work can be physically demanding. Some workers sit for long periods, and others spend many hours on their feet, leaning over tables and operating machinery. In some instances, new machinery and production techniques have decreased the physical demands upon workers. For example, newer pressing machines are now operated by foot pedals or computer controls and do not require much strength to operate. Along with new ergonomically-designed equipment, these developments have helped to reduce the significant problem of repetitive strain injuries among apparel workers. Although there are no life-threatening dangers or health hazards associated with apparel occupations, operators must be attentive while running equipment such as sewing machines, pressers, and automated cutters. A few workers wear protective devices such as gloves.
In some areas of apparel production, the emphasis on individual performance is shifting to an emphasis on teamwork and cooperation. Incentive programs may also be based on a team's performance. The team or module often has managerial authority over itself, increasing the overall responsibility of each operator and allowing more interpersonal contact.
Apparel workers held 835,000 jobs in 1996. The following tabulation shows that about 7 out of 10 were sewing machine operators.
Garment sewing machine operators 453,000 Nongarment sewing machine operators 130,000 Custom tailors 87,000 Pressing machine operators 78,000 Hand cutters and trimmers 46,000 Patternmakers and layout workers 14,000 Hand pressers 14,000 Hand sewers 13,000
Production jobs are concentrated in California, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Georgia. Most of these jobs are in the apparel and textile industries, except for pressers and custom tailors. Although pressing operations are an integral part of the apparel production process, more than one-half of all pressers are employed in the laundry and dry-cleaning industry. In addition, more than one-half of all custom tailors work in retail clothing establishments; many others are self-employed. For both of these occupations, jobs are found in every part of the country.
Training requirements vary by industry. In the apparel industry, for example, few employers require production workers to have a high school diploma or previous work experience. Nevertheless, entrants with secondary or postsecondary vocational training or previous work experience in apparel production usually have a better chance of getting a job and advancing to a supervisory position.
Retailers prefer to hire custom tailors and sewers with previous experience in apparel manufacture, design, or alterations. Knowledge of fabrics, design, and construction is very important. Although laundries and dry cleaners prefer entrants with previous work experience, they routinely hire inexperienced workers.
In general, apparel workers need good hand-eye coordination and the ability to perform repetitive tasks for long periods. Knowledge of fabrics and their characteristics is sometimes required.
Regardless of setting, workers usually begin by performing simple tasks. As they gain experience, they are assigned more difficult operations. Further advancement is limited, however. Some production workers may become first-line supervisors, but the majority remain on the production line. Occasionally, a patternmaker may advance to designer, but usually only after additional training at a design school. Some experienced custom tailors open their own tailoring shop. Custom tailoring is a very competitive field, however, and training in small business operations can mean the difference between success and failure.
Machine operators are usually trained on the job by more experienced employees or by machinery manufacturers' representatives. As machinery in the industry continues to become more complex, some apparel workers will need training in the basics of computers and electronics. In addition, the trend toward cross-training of operators will increase the time needed to learn different machines, and the rise of modular manufacturing will require workers to learn the interpersonal skills necessary to work effectively as part of a team.
Employment of apparel workers is expected to decline through the year 2006. The job outlook of these workers depends largely on conditions in the apparel industry, where most apparel workers are employed. Increased imports, use of offshore assembly, and greater productivity through the introduction of labor-saving machinery will reduce the demand for these workers. Because of the large size of this occupation, however, many thousands of job openings will arise each year from the need to replace persons who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the occupation for other reasons.
Employment in the domestic apparel industry has declined in recent years as foreign producers have gained a greater share of the U.S. market. Imports now account for roughly half of domestic apparel consumption, and this share is expected to increase as the U.S. market is opened further by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). NAFTA allows apparel produced in Mexico and Canada to be imported, duty-free, to the United States. Some apparel companies are expected to move their production facilities to Mexico to reduce costs. In addition, the ATC will result in the elimination of quotas and a reduction in tariffs for many apparel products. As this agreement is phased in through the year 2005, domestic production will continue to move abroad and imports into the U.S. market will increase, causing further employment decline for apparel workers in the United States.
To avoid losing more of the market, domestic manufacturers are developing the ability to take advantage of their proximity to the U.S. market by responding more quickly to changes in market demand. This is especially important in high-fashion items with rapidly-changing demand. U.S. producers are able to use computers and electronic data interchange to closely monitor the sales of the items that they produce and to respond quickly to diminishing inventories. They are, therefore, able to keep retailers stocked with the most popular items and to reduce production of apparel that is not selling well.
Despite these advances in technology, it has been difficult to use automated equipment extensively in the apparel industry due to the soft properties of textile products. In addition, it is time consuming and expensive to adapt existing technology to the wide variety of items produced and the frequent style and seasonal changes. However, some of the larger firms and those that produce standardized items have automated pre-sewing functions, material handling, and some very simple sewing procedures. Technological developments, such as computer-aided marking and grading, computer-controlled cutters, semiautomatic sewing and pressing machines, and automated material handling systems, have increased output while reducing the need for some workers in larger firms. As the apparel industry continues to restructure and consolidate, more of the smaller, less efficient producers will lose market share to larger firms.
Another practice that will influence employment levels is the use of offshore assembly. A provision in U.S. tariff regulations reduces tariffs on apparel imports from Caribbean nations that are assembled from pieces of fabric which were cut in the United States. This enables the most labor-intensive step in the production processassemblyto be performed at much lower wage rates. This trend is expected to continue, and will curtail job opportunities for sewing machine operators in the United States. Because many pre-sewing functions will continue to be done domestically, however, workers who perform these functions will not be as adversely affected.
Custom tailors and sewers, the most skilled apparel workers, are also expected to experience declining employment. Demand for their services will continue to dampen as consumers are increasingly likely to buy new, mass-produced apparel instead of purchasing custom-made apparel or having clothes altered or repaired.
Earnings of apparel workers vary by industry and by occupation. Average weekly earnings of production workers in the apparel industry were $290 in 1996, compared to about $410 for production workers in all manufacturing industries. Earnings vary significantly, depending on the product being manufactured. Average weekly earnings ranged from a low of $230 in firms producing women's blouses and shirts to a high of $470 in establishments making automotive and apparel trimmings.
Sewing machine operatorsaccounting for 7 of every 10 apparel workershad median weekly earnings of $250 in 1996. Because many production workers in apparel manufacturing are paid according to the number of acceptable pieces they or their group produce, their total earnings depend on skill, speed, and accuracy.
Benefits also vary. Large employers increasingly include child care in their benefits package. Those employed in retail trade also may receive a discount on their purchases. In addition, some of the larger manufacturers operate company stores, where employees can purchase apparel products at significant discounts. Some small firms, however, offer only limited benefits. In addition to employer-sponsored benefits, the principal unionthe Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE)provides benefits to its members.
The work of apparel workers varies from that requiring very little skill and training to that which is highly complex, requiring several years of training. Those operating machinery and equipment, such as pressing or sewing machine operators, perform duties similar to metalworking and plastics-working machine operators, textile operatives, and shoe sewing machine operators. Other workers who perform handwork are precision woodworkers, precision assemblers, upholsterers, and shoe and leather workers.
Information regarding careers in apparel is available from numerous technical institutes that have specialized textile and apparel programs. A list of these can be found in college guides. In addition, the local office of the State employment service or an apparel manufacturer can provide information on job opportunities in a specific area.
For general information on the apparel industry, write to:
American Apparel Manufacturers Association, 2500 Wilson Blvd., Suite 301, Arlington, VA 22201.
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