U.S. factory work is returning, but the industry has changed

BY ALANA SEMUELS Published: March 17, 2013
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Giant machines are tearing down the old bleachery, another reminder to Chuck Smith that this old mill town doesn't make much anymore.

Just about everyone he knows was employed at one point making, folding or bleaching towels, until the mills started to close down in the 1990s and 2000s and family members lost their jobs. Like most of this town's residents, Smith can name all the old mills in a slow Georgia drawl.

“There was the Thomaston mill that was here, and the Dundee mill and the Highland mill, but they tore that one down just like they did this one,” he said, watching a bulldozer push piles of metal around what used to be a factory for bleaching towels. “These mills used to employ all the people in this city.”

Recently, the town had a reason to be optimistic. Retail behemoth Walmart announced that it will spend an additional $50 billion buying U.S.-made goods over the next 10 years. It cited 1888 Mills, which runs the last mill left in Griffin, as one company that would benefit from this pledge.

Walmart will sell 1888's Made Here towels, manufactured in Georgia, in 600 stores this spring and in another 600 later this year, which enables the company to add manufacturing jobs.

The retailer's effort will help businesses and “give them the nudge they need” to bring manufacturing back to the United States, Walmart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said in announcing the initiative. It's part of a much-heralded trend of “onshoring,” in which companies including Apple, Lenovo, Otis Elevator and General Electric have said that growing logistics and labor costs overseas have motivated them to move some manufacturing back to the United States.

But if Griffin is any example, Walmart's much-lauded pledge isn't likely to do much to turn around a decades-long manufacturing decline here or in the rest of the country.

That's because manufacturing has changed dramatically since it left American shores, replacing workers with machines and reducing the number of jobs that people could get right out of high school. And as much as companies pledge they're moving manufacturing back to the United States, they're mostly moving just small parts of their larger global operations to be closer to U.S. markets.

“People talk about manufacturing being a big source of job growth. It's going to grow, but it's not going to be a big source of total employment,” said Tom Runiewicz, principal for the industry practices group at IHS Global Insight. “It's just a drop in the bucket.”

1888 Mills, for instance, will add just 35 jobs because of the initiative — better than nothing, but a pittance in a town of 23,000.

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People talk about manufacturing being a big source of job growth. It's going to grow, but it's not going to be a big source of total employment. It's just a drop in the bucket.”

Tom Runiewicz,
Principal for the industry practices group at IHS Global Insight

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