With fewer skilled stitchers to hire, Seat­tle-based gear com­pany ex­pands to Cal­i­for­nia

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Job Market - By Keerthi Vedan­tam

Out­door Re­search, a Seat­tle-based maker of tac­ti­cal and out­door gear, is open­ing a new pro­duc­tion cen­ter in Cal­i­for­nia to find work­ers with a skill that’s de­clin­ing in Seat­tle: sewing.

Since the com­pany es­tab­lished its first fac­tory in Seat­tle in the early ’80s, its seam-sealed tac­ti­cal gloves, which are metic­u­lously stitched to lock out wa­ter and min­i­mize bulk around the hand, have be­come some­thing of a flag­ship prod­uct sold to the mil­i­tary and through out­door equip­ment re­tail­ers like REI. Pro­duc­ing those gloves re­quires a sharp eye and deft hand, and au­to­ma­tion was not an op­tion.

“Wear­ing a pair of gloves, if you’re off by two mil­lime­ters, you’re go­ing to no­tice it,” said Ja­son Dun­can, who runs the tac­ti­cal and in­no­va­tion de­part­ment for Out­door Re­search. “Es­pe­cially if you’re in the mil­i­tary.” As more and more lo­cal ap­parel com­pa­nies moved pro­duc­tion out­side of Seat­tle — and of­ten out of the U.S. en­tirely — Out­door Re­search has strug­gled to find highly skilled sew­ers.

“In Seat­tle, there used to be a fairly strong sewing com­mu­nity

and a lot of those work­ers ei­ther left or re­tired,” Dun­can said.

Search­ing abroad for skill was not on the ta­ble. To con­tinue work­ing with the mil­i­tary, Out­door Re­search needs to fol­low the Berry Amend­ment and pro­duce its goods in the U.S. So the com­pany set­tled on El Monte, Calif., a small city just east of Los An­ge­les, where it es­sen­tially re­pro­duced its 105-em­ployee Seat­tle fa­cil­ity (which will re­main open).

Feng He has no­ticed the shrink­ing of the tal­ent pool in her 23 years at the com­pany.

She started work­ing part-time at Out­door Re­search when her fam­ily moved to Wash­ing­ton from China. Her aunt ex­pertly stitched to­gether the gloves while He pack­aged the prod­uct.

“She’s much bet­ter than me,” He said. “I don’t know how to sew very well.”

He calls it a gen­er­a­tional prob­lem. She grad­u­ated with a busi­ness de­gree in 2004 and went from pack­ag­ing cloth­ing to run­ning the floor. Most of the sewing staff at Out­door Re­search were first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants, like her aunt, who had sewing jobs at fac­to­ries back home. Now, they’re ready to re­tire.

“Their kids are all col­lege grad­u­ates, they’re doc­tors, they’re lawyers,” He said. “They don’t join the in­dus­try.”

El Monte is less ex­pen­sive. Its me­dian house­hold in­come of about $44,000 is less than half of Seat­tle’s. But there’s more to it: El Monte was once home to a bustling gar­ment in­dus­try that was some­times cou­pled with bleak work­ing con­di­tions.

Over the years, com­pa­nies have aban­doned plants to move pro­duc­tion over­seas “at a lower cost,” said Ken Rausch, CEO of the El Monte Cham­ber of Com­merce. Now, said Rausch, the gar­ment in­dus­try is grow­ing again in El Monte, and there’s a higher de­mand for ad­vanced sewing skills that the com­mu­nity al­ready has.

For prod­ucts other than gloves, Out­door Re­search has tried to au­to­mate its process as much as pos­si­ble in Seat­tle, us­ing ma­chines that can au­to­mat­i­cally stitch ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal soft­ware, with some hu­man guid­ance. But the gloves, the crown jewel of the com­pany, still rely on the hu­man hand.

“It is ex­pen­sive and it’s very stress­ful,” said Dun­can. “But we spe­cial­ize in this area.”

An­drey Armyagov/Dreamstime/TNS

Out­door Re­search, a Seat­tle-based maker of tac­ti­cal and out­door gear, is open­ing a new pro­duc­tion cen­ter in El Monte, Calif., to be closer to a deeper pool of work­ers with sewing skills.

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