In N.C., A Second Industrial Revolution

Once a textile worker, Regina Whitaker got an associate degree in biotech and now works as a lab tech at Targacept, a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Once a textile worker, Regina Whitaker got an associate degree in biotech and now works as a lab tech at Targacept, a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I'm not struggling now," she says. "Before, it was paycheck to paycheck." (By Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

PITTSBORO, N.C. -- Until the late 1950s, the low-slung brick building in the center of this minuscule town was home to the Kayser-Roth hosiery mill. Some 400 workers tended to clattering looms, churning out pantyhose.

"It was the best employer in town," said Nancy May, a former worker.

The hosiery mill is gone now, along with much of the Carolina textile industry -- a casualty of the global reordering that has concentrated production in Asia and Latin America. But the old brick building is still here and still making products -- albeit modern varieties that could scarcely have been imagined a half-century ago: Today, the site is occupied by a biotechnology company, Biolex Therapeutics.

Inside, 90 workers harness expensive laboratory equipment and a plant called duckweed, a bane to local ponds, to develop a drug for a serious liver ailment. Even the lowest-paid lab technician takes home far more than the seamstresses earned. If the start-up succeeds, its product will be substantially more lucrative than pantyhose.

As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy. But the retooling of this old brick building on Credle Street underscores how, despite its oft-pronounced demise, American manufacturing is in many regards stronger than ever.

The United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry. Between 1977 and 2005, the value of American manufacturing swelled from $1.3 trillion to an all-time record $4.5 trillion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States is responsible for almost one-fourth of global manufacturing, a share that has changed little in decades. The United States is the largest manufacturing economy by far. Japan, the only serious rival for that title, has been losing ground. China has been growing but represents only about one-tenth of world manufacturing.

But if the big picture is brighter than many realize, American manufacturing is nevertheless undergoing fundamental change that is exerting enormous pressure on workers.

Imports are rising, now representing a third of all manufactured goods consumed in the country, up from 10 percent in the 1970s.

American exports are rising even faster than imports, but companies face intense price competition, with China, India, Brazil and dozens of other low-wage countries now part of a global marketplace for labor and materials. Manufacturers are redesigning production lines to make them more efficient, substituting machinery for people wherever possible.

So while American manufacturing is not declining, manufacturing employment has been shrinking dramatically. After peaking in 1979 at 19 million workers, the American manufacturing workforce has since dropped to 14 million, the lowest number since 1950.

A stark educational divide has emerged on the factory floor, as skills and training separate winners from losers. In 1973, more than half of all American manufacturing workers failed to complete high school, and only 6 percent attended some college, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. By 2001, nearly half completed high school and one-fourth attended some college.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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