It has become all too common here in the Southeast to hear or read of yet another textile mill closing. Mills throughout the region seem to be closing their doors on an almost weekly basis, displacing thousands of workers.

It has become so commonplace, in fact, that some consider it nothing more than a sign of the changing times — yet another indicator that the United States is moving rapidly from a manufacturing to a service economy. But other groups are joining forces to help insure that the U.S. textile industry doesn't become a relic of the past.

Leaders of the unified textile and fiber industry, including the National Cotton Council, have made it clear that unfairly subsidized textile imports will be the “make or break” political issue for the industry during the 2004 elections. These leaders have vowed to make every effort to get each textile worker registered to vote, educate them on the issues and candidates, and get them to the polls on election day to elect candidates who will oppose unfair trade and support U.S. textile manufacturing jobs.

The urgency of the situation is clearly illustrated in the numbers. Since the last presidential election, the U.S. textile and apparel sector has lost 323,000 jobs, representing 31 percent of its workforce. In textiles alone, one U.S. textile job has disappeared every nine minutes since Inauguration Day 2001, for a total of 156,000 lost jobs in 36 months. Also, over the past three years, at least 211 U.S. textile plants have been forced to close their doors.

In South Carolina alone, 22,000 textile and apparel jobs have been lost over the last three years, representing nearly 28 percent of the textile workforce that existed in that state at the beginning of 2001. During that same time, 48 textile plants have shut down in South Carolina.

Jim Chesnutt, chairman of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute and chief executive officer of National Spinning, says, “This will be an election where jobs count. Workers in this country are sick and tired of seeing the work formerly done in U.S. plants head out the door and over to China. Our workers want their government to stand up for them, and they will be looking to support only those candidates who will start saving U.S. manufacturing jobs, not backing policies which send them overseas.”

But don't get the idea that textile leaders are depending solely on the good graces of politicians to save their industry. They also are turning to academia, and a consortium of eight colleges that put students to work seeking solutions to the industry's economic woes.

Some company managers figure if they can't make products cheaper than low-wage overseas competitors, maybe they can make them smarter. To help in this endeavor, they're turning to the National Textile Center, a group of eight universities, including four here in the Southeast — Auburn University, Clemson University, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University.

Some of the research being conducted at these universities search for new products, including “smart” fibers that can adapt to environmental changes, materials that can be used as bulletproof vests, and ideal chemicals to decontaminate clothing.

Others focus on process, such as a mathematical “sourcing” model designed by researchers at North Carolina State. Many companies now are using the model to help weigh business decisions, such as whether to order their materials from a nearby supplier or order cheaper ones from overseas that may take longer to deliver. And Auburn University has been using body-scan technology to perfect the fit of clothing.

The mission of the National Textile Center is to develop a responsive, flexible, productive and quality-oriented textile industry that can compete effectively in a dynamic global marketplace. It also aims to provide the academic research base for the continuing viability and competitiveness of the U.S. textile industry.

Perhaps between changes in public policy and technological innovations, a way can be found to stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. textile jobs. The ultimate survival of the industry is vital to everyone involved in the production and processing of cotton, including the grower.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com