Steve Paul

The economic wheel spins as textile jobs return to U.S.

Signs of a rebounding economy have been popping up here and there in recent weeks.

In his pre-vacation news conference, President Barack Obama put out the notion that 2014 could be a breakthrough year. Outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke last week announced the central bank’s optimism. And daily headlines report encouraging developments with increasing frequency.

One of the more telling indicators of economic recovery in recent days appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which reported on a hopeful trend: Chinese and other Asian textile manufacturers were relocating operations to the American South.

At least four plants in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have opened or are in the works, because of a curious shift in economic details. It’s now cheaper to produce the yarn in the United States — largely because of lower energy costs — and ship it to Latin American fabricators, who, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), return finished goods to the states duty free.

We’re a long way from a convincing reversal of fortune. As of November, the Journal reported, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 114,900 textile jobs in the U.S., compared with 477,300 about 20 years ago.

Still, it seems to be a viable trend. And, perhaps it’s just one of those inevitable points in the cycle of industrial evolution and disruption. For decades, of course, the American textile business was centered in the northeastern states. In the latter half of the 20th century, businesses headed south to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. (In the late 1950s, my grandfather won recognition in Maine after having helped land a new tenant for a long abandoned textile mill.) And then, of course, even cheaper labor could be found overseas.

Now the circle comes back around.

And perhaps you’ve also noticed the recent heart-tugging TV ads from Kia Motors, which tout the Korean company’s vehicles now made in a plant in Georgia.

Much has been made in the politcal arena in recent years about offshoring of American jobs. These developments might be indicating that economic recovery and thus better times for American workers are gaining traction.

Steve Paul, Kansas City Star editorial page columnist, on