Teacher Heather Preimesberger is at a loss when it comes to talking with most of the students enrolled in her class on garment work.
Those students speak a variety of languages Spanish, Chinese, Korean, to name just a few but very few are fluent in English. "One learns to be very creative," Preimesberger said. "I'm a really visual person."
In her classroom at the West Valley Occupational Center in Sherman Oaks, Preimesberger is teaching things like pattern-making, sewing and quality control all skills that are in great demand as L.A.'s $8.6 billion garment manufacturing industry fights to stop the flow of work to overseas competition.
But a recent survey by the Community Development Technology Center has concluded that such affordable classes are rare at a time when nearly half of the 81 L.A. apparel firms surveyed reported a chronic shortage of skilled workers.
"We found huge gaps in the training system," said Linda Wong, who conducted the study along with Judi Kessler, a sociologist at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. "That helps explain why we're having the problems we are, with the inability of minimum-wage, blue-collar workers to move up the job ladder. Virtually no one trains sewing machine operators to upgrade their skills."
Indeed, the survey found that L.A. garment makers do little to help workers develop skills. And as a whole, it said, the haphazard training that is offered by the industry has no link to business objectives or competitiveness.
Few education options
In addition, most of the education that is available is provided by private vocational schools that charge thousands of dollars more than the $40 a semester sought by the Los Angeles Unified School District's West Valley Occupational Center. However, such publicly subsidized classes are few and far between.
Wong believes that's because public-sector investment in garment jobs training has been discouraged by the industry's reputation for sweatshop conditions and by statewide anti-immigrant measures supported by voters in recent years.
Yet the benefits to L.A. from the garment industry are clear. One-fourth of Preimesberger's students go on to start their own businesses, the kind of entrepreneurship that rests at the heart of the local apparel industry.
Recent graduates included a woman from India who opened an import business, and another who started a bridal shop on Ventura Boulevard.
The conclusions of the survey have been met with mixed responses.
Sharon Tate, dean of academic affairs at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, said there is a network of garment training programs in place for adults, even if they're not all in L.A.
"It's my assessment that colleges throughout the area teach skills," Tate said. "There are a large number of colleges, public and private, that are providing training, and we are well supported by the industry."
But Joe Rodrigues, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association of Southern California, said there is indeed a dearth of training available in areas other than design work. However, he believes education is unlikely to help first-generation immigrants, with limited education and English skills, to find contract work when the job base is shrinking.
Scattered job growth
While many garment industry insiders assume the North American Free Trade Agreement will continue to cripple the local garment industry, the new study and other indicators suggest the rate at which individual companies, especially smaller one, have shifted work overseas has slowed.
From 1992 to 1997, the number of L.A. companies sending apparel work to other countries increased from 18 percent to 48 percent. However, the next two years brought only an 8 percent increase, and the number now stands at 56 percent, according to state employment figures.
"What is interesting here is the increase has slowed down considerably, in contrast to when NAFTA went into effect in 1993," Wong said.
And while the number of garment jobs in L.A. County has dropped from 101,000 in 1999 to 98,000 in 2000, there are some encouraging signs within those numbers. A total of 36 percent of the L.A. apparel firms surveyed by Wong and Kessler said they had notched an increase in employment in the past year, while 23 percent reported a decrease.
"(The job loss) is not as great as it has been made out to be," Wong said. "There is a decline it's a relatively steady decline, but that's not to say it's going to shrink to nothing or that it's going to accelerate."
Most companies surveyed said they intend to keep work in L.A. because of the area's high-fashion markets, where turnaround time can be as short as three weeks.
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