I EXPENDED MY last deep pile towel a few years ago and with it a promise to drive through Kannapolis where I once filled a car boot with a decade's supply of inexpensive towels. Kannapolis was the first company town I knew while living in the Carolinas and driving along the eastern seaboard of the United States. During the American Depression, James Cannon, a textile tycoon, looked after his people in the Carolinas by lodging them in tiny white houses. Workers got good wages, free electricity and the promise of a secure job tied each generstion to Cannon Mills.
The Economist visited Kannapolis last week. The story documents the demise of the town.
The textile giant, which used to produce 300,000 towels a day, could not fight of cheap imports or indeed the march of technology. On July 20th 2003, Pillowtex, the last in a string of owners, closed all 16 of its American factories, throwing nearly 6,500 people out of work. It remains the largest single-day job loss in North Carolina's history; inthe Kannapolis area alone, 4,300 people lost their jobs.
The big problem with such a wide swath of unemployment is the low level of literacy among the unemployed. When Pillowtex finally closed the doors, one in three of its workers lacked a high school education; one in ten could not read or write; and nearly half of them were more than 50 years old. You could map similar data over to County Kilkenny with the closure of its textile operations and coal mines. When large scale layoffs hit the headlines, unemployed factory workers expose deep problems with education and qualification. Expect similar issues to emerge in the British press when England tries to cope with retraining Rover employees.
The Economist -- "The human cost of cheaper towels", April 23rd 2005.