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Nature of the Work
* Night and weekend shifts are common, as many textile and fiber mills operate 24 hours a day.
* Employment is expected to decline primarily due to labor-saving machinery and a less restrictive foreign trade environment.
* Earnings are very low.
Textile machinery operators tend machines that manufacture a wide range of textile products. Most people know that hosiery, towels, and socks are textiles, but many are surprised to learn that textile products are used in such things as roofs, tires, and roads. Textile machinery operators play an important part in producing all of these goods by controlling equipment that cleans, cards, combs, and draws the fiber; spins the fiber into yarn; and weaves, knits, or tufts the yarn into textile products. They are responsible for numerous machines that they start, stop, clean, and monitor for proper functioning.
There are many phases in the textile production process, and operators' duties and responsibilities depend on the product and the type of machinery in use. The process begins with the preparation of synthetic or natural fibers for spinning. Fibers are cleaned and aligned through carding and combing. To prepare the fiber for the spinning process, very short fibers and any foreign matter are removed and the fibers are drawn into a substance called sliver. During this process, different types of fibers may be combined to give products the desired textures, durability, or other characteristics. This is how "50-percent cotton, 50-percent polyester" blends, for example, are created. Operators constantly monitor their machines during this stage, checking the movement of the fiber, removing and replacing cans of sliver, repairing breaks in the sliver, and making minor repairs to the machinery.
The full cans of sliver are then taken to the spinning area. Spinning draws and twists the sliver to produce yarn which is then wound onto conical structures called bobbins or cones. This is an automated version of the old fashion spinning wheel.
Some workers oversee machinery that makes manufactured fibers. These fibers are created from materials that, unlike cotton, wool, and flax, are not fibrous in their natural form. To make this fiber, wood pulp or chemical compounds are dissolved or melted in a liquid which is then extruded, or forced, through holes in a metal plate, called a spinneret. The sizes and shapes of the holes in the spinneret determine the shape and the uses of the fiber. Workers adjust the flow of fiber base through the spinneret, repair breaks in the fiber, and make minor adjustments to the machinery. Because this fiber is created by a chemical process, the majority of these workers are employed by chemical companies, not textile mills.
When the yarn is ready, it is taken to be woven, knitted, tufted, or bonded with heat or chemicals. Each of these processes creates a different type of textile product and requires a different type of machine. Woven fabrics are made on looms that interlace the yarn. Knit products, such as socks or women's hosiery, are produced by intermeshing loops of yarn. Carpeting is made through the tufting process, in which the loops of yarn are pushed through a backing material. Although the processes are now highly automated, these concepts have been used for many centuries to produce textile products.
Once the yarn has been woven, knitted, or tufted, the resulting fabric is ready to be dyed and finished either at the textile mill or at a plant specializing in textile finishing. Depending upon the end use of the yarn, it may be dyed before or after it is woven, knitted, or tufted. Some fabric is treated before it is dyed to remove other chemical additives that could affect the quality of the finished product.
In addition to dyeing and printing, products are often finished by treating them to prevent excessive shrinkage, provide strength, make them stain-resistant, or give them a silky luster. In the production of hosiery and socks, for example, the stocking or sock is placed on a form and then exposed to steam and heat to give it shape.
Textile machinery operators play a vital role in all of the various processes described above. In spite of the wide range of machines with which they work, machine operators share many responsibilities. Most prepare their machinery prior to a production run and help maintain the equipment by adjusting the timing on a machine, threading the harnesses that create patterns in textile goods, and repairing machinery. Each operator oversees numerous machines, performing such duties as repairing breaks in the yarn and monitoring its supply. Because more automated machinery is used in textile mills, a greater number of processes are controlled by computers, making it possible for each operator to monitor a larger area or number of machines. The complexity of many machines often requires operators to specialize in a particular type of machine.
Most textile machine operators work in textile mills or chemical plants. Working conditions depend upon the age and degree of modernization of the factory. Newer facilities usually offer better ventilation and climate control that reduce potential problems caused by airborne fibers and fumes. In a few older facilities, workers in areas with high levels of these airborne materials often use protective glasses and masks that cover their nose and mouth.
Although some of the newer machinery has reduced the level of noise, workers in some areas still wear ear protection. Many machines operate at high speeds, and workers must be careful not to wear clothing or jewelry that could get caught in moving parts. In addition, extruding and forming machine operators wear protective shoes and clothing when working with certain chemical compounds.
Most textile machinery operators work a standard 40-hour week. Night and weekend shifts are common, as many textile and fiber mills operate 24 hours a day. However, many employers use a rotating schedule of shifts so that operators don't consistently work nights or weekends.
Although workers have traditionally worked under close supervision, new management philosophies are placing an increasing emphasis on teamwork, which will allow operators greater interpersonal contact and more initiative.
Textile machinery operators held about 272,000 jobs in 1996. Most of these workers were employed in weaving, finishing, yarn, and thread mills. Knitting mills and manufactured fiber producers also employed a large number of these workers. Most extruding and forming machine operators were employed in chemical plants.
North Carolina was the leading State in the employment of textile workers, accounting for about 30 percent of the total. Georgia and Carolina combined accounted for another 30 percent. Most of the remaining workers were employed in other southern States and in the Northeast.
A high school diploma or its equivalencywhile not required for all machine operating positionsis becoming more common for entry-level positions in many mills. Some mills prefer applicants to possess a high school diploma and additional technical training. This training may be obtained, in part, at a formal training institution, such as a technical school. In addition, extensive on-the-job training may be offered by more experienced workers or representatives of machinery manufacturers.
As the textile industry becomes more highly automated, some operators will need to understand complex machinery and be able to diagnose problems. Because textile machinery is increasingly controlled electronically, prospective employees will benefit from a basic knowledge of computers and electronics.
Physical stamina and manual dexterity are important attributes for these jobs. In addition, self-direction and interpersonal skills are becoming more important for textile machinery operators, as organizational changes that promote teamwork and encourage fewer levels of management are leading operators to assume greater responsibility and to take more initiative.
Textile machinery operators can advance in several ways. Some workers become instructors and train new employees. Others advance by taking positions requiring higher skills and greater responsibility. First-line supervisory positions usually are filled from the ranks of skilled operators.
Employment of textile machinery operators is expected to decline over the 1996-2006 period. The most important factors influencing the employment outlook will be greater worker productivity through the introduction of labor-saving machinery and a more open trading environment. In spite of the projected decline, thousands of openings will be created annually as workers change occupations or leave the labor force.
Textile firms will respond to growing competition in coming years by investing in new equipment, reorganizing their work practices, and consolidating. New machinery, such as faster air jet looms and computer-integrated manufacturing technology, will increase productivity and allow each operator to monitor a larger number of machines. Many factories are also reorganizing production floors to further increase productivity and to give workers more responsibility. In addition, textile firms are merging to benefit from economies of scale and pool their resources to invest in new equipment. Although each of the above practices should make the textile industry more competitive, they are likely to adversely affect the outlook for many machine operators.
Another major uncertainty for textile workers is the future of trade. Recent trade initiatives, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing of the World Trade Organization, will help to open export markets for textiles produced in the United States. At the same time, they will dismantle much of the protection that has been provided to the industry for decades. While the textile industry is highly efficient and will be able to compete in many product lines, the labor-intensive U.S. apparel industry will be more adversely affected by these trade initiatives. This, in turn, will negatively affect the demand for textile machinery operators because the apparel industry is the largest consumer of American-made textiles.
Because the textile industry is highly automated, persons with technical skills and some computer training will have the best opportunities. Textile machinery operators who are expected to fare the best are bleaching and dyeing machine operators and extruding machine operators who produce synthetic fibers.
Average weekly earnings for production workers in the textile mill products industry industries were about $390 in 1996, compared to $530 for production workers in all manufacturing industries and $410 for production workers throughout private industry. Earnings vary significantly, depending upon the type of mill, job specialty, shift, and seniority. Average weekly earnings for production workers in the chemical industry, where most extruding machine operators are found, were around $700 in 1996.
In addition to typical benefits, some firms provide on-site daycare facilities and offer employees discounts in company-owned outlet stores.
Metalworking and plastics-working machine operators perform similar duties and have many of the same entry and training requirements as extruding and forming machine operators and tenders, textile machine operators and tenders, and textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators. Setters and setup operators in other industriesmetal fabrication and plastics manufacturing, for exampleperform duties comparable to those of textile machine setters and setup operators.
Information about job opportunities in textile and synthetic fiber production is available from local employers or local offices of the State employment service.
For general information on careers, technology, or trade regulations in the textile industry, write to:
American Textile Manufacturers Institute, Inc., 1130 Connecticut Ave. NW., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20036-3954.
Institute of Textile Technology, 2551 Ivy Rd., Charlottesville, NC 22903-4614.
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