Dealing with employees' needs
In this excerpt, Smith describes some of the hosiery industry's challenges, such as its struggle to deal with immigrant workers. One unique challenge that the hosiery industry faces: most of its employees are women earning a second income for their families, so the industry struggles to make wages commensurate with primary breadwinner wages.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
JM: Any important labor challenges, in the span of your [presidency], within the industry?
SS: The hosiery industry has traditionally from World War Two on up until a few years ago been a light manufacturing [trade], and therefore, has been very heavily populated by females. We've had primarily a female workforce. That has, in many cases, been the second income to the family. The husband works somewhere else. The female of the family works in the hosiery mill and has an add on paycheck or it has been the second job of a two job working person, male or female. They've been able to do a second shift or work another shift at the hosiery mill and make a few more dollars. Our challenge -- and one that many of our people in this industry desire -- is we are anxious to get the wage that we're able to pay our employees to where it would be the equivalent of a primary family breadwinner wage[earner] working one job. That's what we would like to do, but it's impossible to do in such a competitive environment when you can't get any price [control] passed through. That's number one. Part of the reason we want to do that is with this new high technology equipment, we need a brighter, more educated, more skilled workforce. That is difficult to find with full employment basically going on throughout the southeast as we sit here today. Finding and keeping labor is our biggest challenge. So, what we're doing is, we're using a lot of immigrants. We're getting--. I can go into hosiery mills today, where the predominant language spoken is Laotian or Spanish. They're males not female, though females too. The labor force is changing into a more of a balance between male and female. It is becoming more diverse as far as culture and language. The work ethic and the stick-to-it-edness of many of these immigrants is excellent. They're here to work. They appreciate what they've got and they're very skilled, but the language barriers are a challenge. [We are] producing employee handbooks in two or three different languages. [We have to worry,] “Does that whole line supervisor, can he speak enough Spanish to get across to his instruction?” Those kinds of things are real, real challenging. Labor, now and into the future, is the big question mark. It would be labor that makes this industry move around [relocate], if it has to move around. It won't be price. It won't be raw materials. It will be labor. We need people. We can't find enough of them. Labor is the critical issue, not just for us but for a lot of other industries. Now again, we might not have that problem if we were able to get our wage rate to where we would like to get it to and yet still sell our product at the price that a large company -- a large retailer, particularly a discounter -- makes.