Losing Manufacturing

Here's an article about a town in Texas that has lost plenty of manufacturing jobs, especially to neighboring Mexico.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a small news item: "Fruit of the Loom will close its Harlingen, Texas, plant Dec. 31, ending jobs for 791 people…." Unfortunate, though not unexpected. But the next phrase jumped off the page. The article said the closure would be "erasing the last of the region's textile industry," then went on to list a string of factories that had shut down in recent years, all done in by less expensive imports. Now here was something remarkable: A whole industry of an entire region swept away by the invisible hand of global macroeconomics. (As FORTUNE went to press, Levi Strauss announced it was closing all its North American plants.)

It made me curious about Harlingen. What was it like there now? Was the area depressed economically-and maybe psychologically too? What would all those laid-off factory workers do? I decided to visit the town and what I discovered was surprising. Yes, the unemployment rate is high-8% in Harlingen and 11% in Cameron County-and, yes, the town's main drag is no Rodeo Drive. But businesses other than textiles have been growing, and while it's hard to generalize, the people in Harlingen don't appear to have given up or descended into a funk. In fact, they seem ready to move on. If you're looking for a laboratory of the country's massive job losses and the global economic forces triggering them, Harlingen is it. Unlike previous generations in New England and the Carolinas, people here quickly recognized those forces as inevitable. "If a company comes down here now and says, 'We want you to help us open up a minimum-wage factory,' we say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' " says Connie de la Garza, the mayor of Harlingen, who works part-time out of his realty office. "Those are the jobs of the past. We want jobs of the future."

This town doesn't even want new manufacturing jobs. They want the "jobs of the future." People fought the move from agriculture to manufacturing, and from manufacturing to services, but new industries keep arising. We often ask what industries will arise to provide future jobs, because we don't see anything on the horizon, but recent history tells us that something will come up.

Some fault the rise of the service industry because the jobs are low paying, but if service industry jobs are increasing, then someone has to be making enough money to pay for those services. The problem is not a loss of manufacturing jobs, or an increase in service jobs. The problem is that the American education system is not preparing citizens to rise to the next level. The American workforce should be the most well educated, adaptable, creative workforce in the world, but the school system designed years ago hasn't adapted to the challenges of the modern economy. That's my opinion, anyway. It is based in part on the fact that most of what I have learned in life has come outside of school.