69.6 Percent

Bet you thought I'd forgotten all about China Ate My Jeans. Never. I've been shopping, studying, interviewing experts, learning about skilled and unskilled manufacturing. My desk (a 1940s-era drop leaf table I found at a second hand store) overflows with information.

On this Good Friday, I've been thinking about the poorest amongst us. And I've been wondering, selfishly but sincerely, how to help them without giving up much myself. Sorry. Have to be honest here. These thoughts began this morning. I was going to go to church--where every good Christian belongs today--but then decided to quickly check the just-released U.S. Department of Labor statistics for March. So if my pastor, Father Gerry, asks why I wasn't at Good Friday services I'll simply say it was the government's fault. (He'll assume I was working on my taxes. Surely he'll forgive me).

The most intriguing statistics? Employment status of civilian population 25 years and over by educational attainment. Did you know that unemployment among those without a high school diploma is now 12.6 percent (or 1,449,000)? Unemployment of those 25 and over with a high school diploma but no college degree: 8 percent or 2,902,000. The media, from what I've read today, aren't discussing those two out-of-work groups. Yet together they total a whopping four million individuals. Meanwhile, newspapers today collectively high-five the 30.4 percent of Americans 25 years and over who now have college degrees, an historically high number. Good for them. But what about the other 69.6 percent? What about the 4,351,000 Americans 25 years and over who are unemployed and have no education beyond high school, if that?

Some globalization-enthusiasts argue the United States doesn't have a large enough labor pool to compete for apparel manufacturing jobs with China or India. Others say America has moved beyond unskilled manufacturing altogether. According to yesterday's New York Times, "a revolution in manufacturing employment seems far-fetched. Most of the factory jobs lost over the last three decades in this country are gone for good. In truth, they are not even very good jobs." Ouch. Tell that to Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania based apparel manufacturer FesslerUSA. According to Textile World:

FesslerUSA's roots trace back to 1900, when Walter Meck, grandfather of the current CEO Walter Meck, left the family farm and founded M & Co., a cotton underwear manufacturer in the Pennsylvania Dutch riverport of Schuylkill Haven.

Now a supplier of knitted fabrics and apparel for more than 100 brands, FesslerUSA employs about 150 people. These workers produce over 100,000 garments a week at the company's 150,000-square-foot, vertically integrated manufacturing facility. A custom software program drives the entire manufacturing process. Although its laces and elastics are sourced overseas, all of the company's design services, knitting, cutting, sewing, folding, packing and final processing are in-house. Dyeing and finishing is done by a local dyer with whom the company has done business for 40 years. Yarn and trims are bought from manufacturers in North Carolina and Allentown, PA.

If FesslerUSA can do this sort of thing on a small scale, why can't American companies that mass produce apparel overseas--Levi's, Gap, Chico's, Target, Walmart--do so on a larger scale here, too?

Betsy Stevenson, one-time chief economist at the Labor Department who spoke with The New York Times for its in-depth look at Apple, Inc., doesn't sound hopeful. "Companies once felt an obligation to support American workers, even when it wasn't the best financial choice. That's disappeared. Profits and efficiency have trumped generosity."

An unnamed Apple executive quoted in the same NYT piece underscores Stevenson's pessimistic observations: "'We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries. We don't have an obligation to solve America's problems. Our only obligation is to making the best product possible.'" Double ouch. Take that, unemployed Americans. Yet anyone with a stock portfolio can't chastise Mr. Unnamed Apple Executive. More profits, if you please, sir.

I wonder: Can we still have it all? Profits, efficiency, and generosity? Consider this, from Bonnie Meck, COO, FesslerUSA:

When we say 'family,' we mean more than just immediate family; I consider every one of my employees to be part of my family. We think the key to running a successful business is not just making money, but making sure the needs of our employees--our family--are being met. Employee welfare is a very important part of sustaining a company.

Company executives like Bonnie Meck--and yes, more are out there--make me optimistic about future job prospects for our currently unemployed, undereducated 69.6 percent. We are all interconnected. If these folks can provide for themselves and their children, participate in our economy, see proof that they are, as Ms. Meck says, "important," our society as a whole will benefit.

PS: By the way, in its piece about Apple, The New York Times estimates that iPhones manufactured here in the USA would cost consumers about $65 more per phone. If you haven't yet, please read the entire enlightening piece. Well worth your time. Would you be willing to pay $65 more for a Made in the USA iPhone?