American Made but no one to Make it?
Today (Aug. 20, 2013) I was glad to stumble upon a discussion on “American Made” held at Story in the downtown meatpacking district. This open panel discussion brought up many good points and evolved into some very constructive conversation. Discussions covered everything from factory safety to product sustainability, and bridged topics such as the inklings of an American manufacturing rebirth to the archaic mindsets that have portrayed labor as a commodity. While all of these topics can hold their own, I am going to delve into the discussion I introduced: the stigma of learning a trade skill and the lack of a younger workforce to bolster a rebirth in US manufacturing/craftsmanship.
Graduating from high school, the majority of students are encouraged to enroll in a college or university with the promise of a higher salary job. Furthermore, they are convinced that specific concentrations, such as business or finance, will guarantee a “high salary” job. On the rare occasion that this happens, I congratulate all those who “made it” through some hard work and a bit of luck. In reality, the majority of these college graduates enter the world with no job, let alone one in their field of study — and they are eyeballs deep in debt. Options previously available to the youth of America’s manufacturing boom are all but extinct, and the workforce that has maintained it is quickly retiring with no replacement. Family-owned businesses and trades schools that have supported this lifestream of labor are now treated as a dumping ground for glamour-less work or to temper problem children through hard labor. The idea of “honing a skill” and becoming a “craftsman” has been reduced to small micro-businesses, niche products, and urban economies.
It is nearly impossible in the American fashion manufacturing industry to find quality sewers, pattern makers, pattern cutters, leather workers, etc., let alone anyone interested in learning the craft. Many of these positions pay $40-100k a year, yet there is no workforce to rotate in for retirees, nor the amount of craftsman needed to expand business. This industry will not survive until we revitalize the idea that apprenticing is an education, and working with one’s hands is not a second class or last resort of the underprivileged, simple minded, or placement for cheap immigrant labor. We should welcome back the idea of “honing one’s skills” or “being a master at one’s trade” as both honorable and valuable. We should support companies who invest in their employees and acknowledge that when a company stands behind its employees, it is in direct correlation to that company’s belief in the quality and standards of its products.
Made + Story Panel = Nanette Lepore, Alex Bogusky and Sheryl Connelly
photo via @nanettelepore