View from a former NC textile town: Trump's jobs promise will be hard to keep

Textile jobs gone for good: One worker’s story

Scot Wilson talks about transition to new job after nearly 40 years at textile plant comes to an end
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Scot Wilson talks about transition to new job after nearly 40 years at textile plant comes to an end

Scot Wilson estimates he has spent most of his 56 years in an eight-block radius.

The youngest of eight kids, Wilson was 16 when he started working at the yarn mill across the street from his family’s home in Maiden, a quiet North Carolina town about 37 miles northwest of Charlotte that was once bustling thanks to its cotton mills.

Wilson would walk to and from high school, which let out at 2 p.m., then walk the few steps to the factory, where from 3 to 11, he helped assemble woven goods like sheets, towels, T-shirts and police uniforms.

“When you’re from a big family, as you got old enough, you try to help your parents,” Wilson explains of his after-school job. He switched to 12-hour shifts after graduating high school.

Wilson spent nearly four decades at Delta Apparel before his bosses told him and his nearly 160 coworkers last spring that the Maiden facility would close and move its operations to Honduras. Wilson considers himself lucky to have found another job at a nearby furniture plant, where he started work before the Delta plant closed in July.

“It was heartbreaking,” Wilson says. “One of the reasons I got out when I did was because I was afraid at my age, I wouldn’t find nothing else. There ain’t no textiles around this way.”

Bringing back American jobs is a promise on which Donald Trump focused his presidential campaign. Speaking at a rally in Concord less than a week before the election, Trump said his administration would “stop the jobs from leaving America.”

That’s a vow that particularly hit home in North Carolina, once a hotbed of textile manufacturing that has seen employment in the sector fall by more than 82 percent since the mid-1990s, according to Federal Reserve data.

But interviews with over a dozen Maiden residents, who like Wilson have witnessed the textile industry’s decline firsthand, show they remain skeptical of a comeback – regardless of their political leanings. And economists say for North Carolina, returning the industry to its former prominence is not feasible.

The main reasons are deep-rooted, and difficult to fix with incentives or policies. For one, labor remains cheaper in countries like Honduras. Textile manufacturing has also become highly automated, so factories need fewer people to do the manual work now handled easily by machines.

“The same jobs are not coming back. We just do it differently today,” says UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton. “The idea that somehow or another there are going to be loom producers or workers that are going to come back and get jobs here … that’s absolutely ridiculous.”

‘My plan to bring back your jobs’

In Maiden, a town of about 3,400, textile jobs have been on the decline for years. Carolina Mills closed its Maiden plant in 2002, and American & Efird followed suit the next year, both taking with them hundreds of well-paying positions. Delta also closed another one of its yarn plants in 2003, followed by the closure of Mohican Mills, too.

Bob Smyre, who has been Maiden’s mayor for over 36 years, says companies like Carolina Mills were once mainstays of small communities, acting as civic pillars not unlike the American Legion.

“People used to say, ‘If I could just get a job at Carolina Mills. It’s sound, it’s going to be there forever.’ Of course it was good, and it paid good,” Smyre says.

In North Carolina, the industry’s decline has been a long, gradual slide that accelerated when the North American Free Trade Agreement – which Trump has called the worst trade deal “in the history of the world” – was signed in January 1994. Deals like NAFTA opened up new trade routes, and domestic manufacturers found themselves facing competition from cheap imports. Forced to lower their prices, U.S. companies looked to cut costs elsewhere, shuttering factories and laying off employees.

Since NAFTA was signed, textile manufacturing employment has plummeted by over 78 percent in the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton metropolitan area, which includes Maiden, according to federal data.

Maiden sits in Catawba County, which voted heavily – 66.8 percent – for Trump in November.

Along with NAFTA and other trade deals he has deemed unfair, Trump has also blamed the U.S.’s 35 percent corporate tax rate for companies moving operations overseas. After Congress failed to vote on Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the White House indicated it will pivot to tax reform, which proponents say will help entice American companies to do business at home.

On Friday, Trump signed two executive orders meant to boost manufacturing. The first commissions a report on factors that contribute to the trade deficit. The second seeks to crack down on dumping, which occurs when a manufacturer exports a large amount of a product at a price below what it charges domestically.

“The president made a promise to the American people to level the playing field for the American worker,” a White House official said in an email to the Observer.

At the Concord rally, Trump said North Carolina has been affected “more than most” by companies moving their operations out of the U.S.

“At the core of my contract is my plan to bring back your jobs that have been taken away,” Trump said.

Small towns shrink as Charlotte swells

These days, about 80 percent of students in Maiden graduate high school, and about 8.5 percent of those go on to get a college degree, according to figures from the mayor’s office. Many of the young people, particularly those with more education, end up leaving Maiden in search of work, Smyre says.

It makes sense, then, that the town’s population is aging. The median age in Maiden was 39.9 in 2015, according to census data, up from 36.2 in 2000. Charlotte’s median age in 2015, by comparison, was 33.7.

“There just aren’t jobs here for them,” Smyre says. “It’s hard to compete with Charlotte, Gastonia and Hickory.”

Charlotte hasn’t been immune to the death of textile manufacturing either, though. Between 1980 and 2005, the metro area lost 40,300 jobs, representing an industry employment decline of 84.5 percent, according to a 2011 report from the Brookings Institute.

One of the city’s last textile firms to close? Highland Mill in NoDa, a property now home to Heist Brewery, notes local historian Tom Hanchett.

But between 1980 and 2005, Charlotte saw a net increase in employment of 96.3 percent, fueled by employment in banking, real estate, education and health care, the Brookings report showed.

Skepticism of Trump’s promise

In Maiden, apprehension about the local job market abounds.

Last month, a 59 year-old woman named Renee lost her job as a machine operator at Hickory Furniture after almost two years there. She says competition for jobs in the area is fierce. A grandmother with family close by, Renee says she hasn’t decided if she will look for new employment.

“When you get on up there (in age), it’s hard to find a job,” says Renee, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution.

Vanessa Weiss comes from a family of seven, and her father worked for years at the sewing factory Leslie Fay in Lincolnton, where she grew up.

“The jobs were leaving back before (former President Barack) Obama. This has been going on for a long time. You can’t really blame it on one administration. It’d be fantastic if (Trump) could get jobs back here, but I’ll have to see it to believe it,” says Weiss, who works at a Laundromat in town.

Just over two months into his presidency, Trump is already working to make good on the promises he made on the campaign trail.

Before he even took office, Trump negotiated a deal to stop air conditioner manufacturer Carrier Corp. from moving about 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico. And in an effort to revive the coal industry and create jobs, Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to unravel Obama’s plan to curb global warming.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican co-chair of the bipartisan House Textile Caucus, lauds Trump’s “pragmatic approach” to renegotiating trade deals that have dealt blows to manufacturing in his district, which includes Maiden. He also favors a “more competitive tax policy.”

Those kinds of reforms, he says, “will make America once again the preferred place to do business on the planet.”

But the industry won’t be the same as it once was. “The world of manufacturing is so changed from the 1950s. You can’t put a genie back in the bottle,” McHenry says.

Textiles’ deep-rooted problems

In manufacturing, the jobs that were lost can best be characterized as labor-intensive – machine operators, technicians, knitters. It’s not likely a sweeping executive mandate could dial back the clock and revive the textile industry.

“In terms of bringing back jobs, it’s not quite that simple,” says Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner.

“The jobs that left are not likely to be the same jobs that come back. Manufacturing has changed in a big way. The technology that is used to manufacture goods today is much different than when industry left.”

That was the case at Delta’s plant in Maiden, says CEO Bob Humphreys. Better technology means plants have gotten more productive, reducing the need for older equipment that was pricey to operate.

“What generally happens is your newest facilities are lower cost. You end up increasing (investment) there, and either cutting back or eliminating plants that are older. That was ultimately the story in Maiden,” Humphreys says.

Maiden has already seen a comeback of some high-skilled jobs. In 2009, Apple built a $1 billion data center in town to support its iCloud operations. The company said it would create 50 high-tech jobs, and another 250 positions in areas like maintenance and security. (An Apple representative said the company doesn’t comment on employment totals.)

Employers like Delta that have taken their operations abroad are doing exactly what textile companies have long done – moved to where labor is cheapest.

Including the costs of labor and benefits, operating in Honduras is probably about one-sixth the cost of operating in North Carolina, Humphreys says.

That was the case, too, in the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, when British sewers moved production to New England towns like Lowell, Mass., then down to states like North Carolina when workers up north started forming unions, notes Roxanne Newton, executive director of student success at the N.C. Community Colleges system.

“There isn’t an incentive to stay here. This is the key to the whole puzzle and it has been since textiles became an industry,” Newton says.

Back in Maiden, Wilson, the former Delta employee, says he took a pay cut when he took his new position at the furniture factory. His older brother, who is 58, also had worked at Delta, and hasn’t been able to find a new job yet.

Wilson calls his former employer’s off-shoring “very dirty,” and favors incentives to keep American jobs in place.

“I did not vote for Trump, but I see he is trying to do something,” Wilson says. “I’m all for him working to get our jobs back.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta