Bureau of Labor Statistics: Manufacturing-related Fashion Jobs Continue to Drop in the U.S.

A recent study released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed that manufacturing-related fashion jobs in the United States will continue to drop through 2020. Although the occupation of sewing machine operator is projected to face the most significant shrinkage in employment, the job decline is suggested to be an industry-wide phenomenon. According to the BLS, from 2003 to 2012, the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry (NAICS 315) had lost 57.7% of its jobs.

The question open for discussion, yet critical for textile& apparel major college graduates, is that how might the decline in manufacturing affect the destiny of other aspects of the U.S. fashion industry in the long run, such as the design and product development functions. No industry sector can survive as an island. As argued by the world’s leading scholar on the subject Michael Porter in his numerous studies addressing the industry competitiveness, the availability and strength of the local supporting industries have a key role to play in shaping the competitiveness of an industry in a nation. For example, the reason why the United States remains the world leading man-made fiber producer today is largely because the U.S. chemistry industry is able to provide needed inputs (such as raw material, technology and knowhow). By the same token, if fabrics are no longer locally made, compared with their overseas competitors such as Italy and China, the U.S. fashion designers might also be put at a big disadvantage in sourcing the needed material and developing the sample products in a timely manner, with flexible choices and at a reasonable cost.

Technology is another critical  factor contributing to job decline in the U.S. fashion industry. As the 2008 study Forecasting the US fashion industry with industry professionals—Part I material and design concluded that “design and production processes would rely heavily on computer and digital technology…the apparel package in the U.S., including creative design, will possibly migrate offshore with the exceptions of heavily technology-involved design and product development tasks.”   

In the meanwhile, the retail sector remains a robust job creator for textile & apparel major college graduates. From 2003 to 2012, total employment in the U.S. apparel retail industry (NAICS 4482) increased 5.7%. By 2012, almost 80% of the occupations in the U.S. textile and apparel industry were offered by retailers. 

by Sheng Lu




Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

3 thoughts on “Bureau of Labor Statistics: Manufacturing-related Fashion Jobs Continue to Drop in the U.S.”

  1. The issue of employment decline in U.S. manufacturing related jobs has been a topic of discussion for many years now. It is especially important for a college student, like me, to be aware of the major changes going on in the industry right now because it will allow us be realistic about what our options will be once entering the workforce. Globalization has made it possible for companies to easily import and outsource goods from other countries for a lower cost than producing domestically. While many see this as the major factor of job decline in manufacturing jobs in the U.S., I believe technology to be the greatest issue. Continuous technological advancements and faster productivity are the two characteristics that will shape the future of the textile and apparel industry. These changes have created a need for a highly skilled workforce is the U.S. College students should know that the industry is very competitive and that most employment has been found in retail over the last few years. While jobs are declining in manufacturing-related jobs, I think that once people become more accepting and adept to the technological advances of our time, jobs will grow in other areas of the industry.

  2. I love statistics; they’re just so eye-opening.

    Anyway, I see your point in this article. If we come to a point (which one day I’m sure we will) where we are forced to import any textiles we need, it will surely pose some problems for designers. However, I think that fact of the matter is that manufacturing jobs just can’t survive here. Our wages are too high and simply cannot compete. It isn’t lucrative.

    While I don’t think we will be able to get those jobs back, I think that there are other ways to solve the problem. While apparel manufacturing is a labor intensive industry today, I think that technology is advancing at such a rate that perhaps in the future we will be able to mechanize these processes. Then, our machines may be able to compete with foreign workers.

    Basically, I think that instead of trying to keep the manufacturing jobs here, we should try to come up with new technology that can create new jobs and make the US a competitor in the manufacturing industry again.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful comments! I agree with many of your viewpoints. As I know, the European scientists have already started working on new technologies that can automatically make clothing. (you may check this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTpfC1sHB4) The fast developing 3D technology might be another option. The bottom line is the T&A industry will keep evolving & changing rather than standing still. Our industry, including the T&A education programs need to avoid “dinosaur thinking”—lingering on those old beautiful days which will never come back or miss the key questions.

      PS: I like checking statistics too, because they can reflect what had happened in a relatively objective way.

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