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Garment Workers Go High Tech with SMC Program

By Jorge Casuso

April 2 -- The computerized knitwear machines at French Rags will soon be humming overtime thanks to a program Santa Monica College will launch this month to retrain low-wage garment workers in an industry facing increased overseas competition and automation.

The State-funded $200,000 program, which kicks off April 22, will train 86 employees over 18 months to operate, maintain and program sophisticated knitwear apparel-making machines. The program provides a stepping stone to higher paying jobs in Los Angeles' largest manufacturing sector.

"The apparel industry is facing keen overseas competition and is turning more and more to sophisticated machines that are faster, more accurate, and ultimately lower cost than using unskilled laborers," said Marvin Martinez, SMC associate vice president of planning and development.

"The challenge the industry is facing," Martinez said, "is training these employees and providing them the technical skills to operate these machines."

The program, which will use the facilities and equipment at French Rags in West Los Angeles also will train employees of two other local companies -- Woo-Ami and Lafa Company. The program also will provide English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for the workers, who are mostly from Latin America and Asia.

"It's a win-win for both businesses and employees," Martinez said. "It's filling a gap. It's good for the companies, which are getting trained workers, and it's a chance for the workers to be more marketable."

The program is being funded with a $199,575 grant from the California Employment Training Panel, a state agency created in 1982 to fill the need for skilled workers for good, long-term jobs. This is the first grant SMC receives from the agency.

The apparel industry -- which generates more than $47 billion a year in wholesale sales in California and accounts for approximately 279,000 direct and indirect jobs -- employs one of the most rapidly declining occupational groups in the economy.

Employment in the apparel sector is expected to continue to decline through 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Contributing to additional job losses is an increase in imports, the use of offshore assembly and increased automation.

The SMC program offers classes in operating the new computerized machines, maintaining and programming them and designing computerized knitwear. As employees pass each class, their pay is increased.

The new training program builds on a small pilot project SMC started last November. That program trained 15 French Rags employees in the basics of knitwear machine operation.

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