Stands a chimney so tall, that says Aragon Mill.
But there’s no smoke at all, coming out of the stack,
For the mill has pulled out, and it ain’t coming back.
— “Aragon Mill”
The history of textile manufacturing has been the history of an industry in search of labor — cheap labor, the most variable cost. Mills in England crossed the Atlantic to New England. From New England they came to the South. There they flourished until the 1990s, when they moved again, this time to China, India and Mexico. In each move, cheap labor was the Holy Grail the company sought.
The effect of this last move on the economy in the Southern piedmont was devastating. Between 2000 and 2011, on average, 17 textile mills across the region shut down every day.
Now they are opening again.
Studies have shown that Americans are willing to buy things made in the United States even if they cost more. Retailers from Walmart to Abercrombie & Fitch have again begun touting American-made items — not because of patriotic sentiments among corporate leaders, but because selling American makes the bottom line look better. But there is more.
American retailers and American consumers are finding that it is becoming cheaper to buy American.
Transportation has always been a costly aspect of outsourcing. Not just moving goods from the mill to the market, but also sending supervisors to oversee production and, since recent factory disasters across the globe, monitor worker safety.
There are also communication and quality matters to consider. Offshore workers and their supervisers do not always comprehend what U.S. companies want, which can lead to quality issues that slow production and drive up costs. When these things are factored in, the cost of labor becomes less of a problem.
But the work still must be done, and to make labor cost even less of an issue, manufacturers are turning to technology. Instead of scores of high-paid U.S. workers, the work is done increasingly by machines. The workers who remain are well-paid, have good benefits and receive additional training so they can operate and service the machines. But they are significantly fewer than the number employed before the outsourcing began.
So the mills are coming back, slowly but steadily. Sadly, we must add the jobs aren’t.