Now-Thriving U.S. Handbag Maker Worries Skilled Worker Supply Will Dry Up

Over the past five years, Minnesota-based business owner Jen Guarino's life has completely turned around, thanks in part to a stronger manufacturing climate around Made in USA products and the support of an angel investor who helped her propel her company out of the red and into the black. Now, she's got a new problem born of her success -- how to replace her aging workforce.

Her company, the 100-year-old J.W. Hulme, makes luxury leather handbags and luggage, which weren't in great demand back in 2008, the year of the worst U.S. economic downturn since the Great Depression.

It was a year during which the small manufactuer, deeply in debt. tettered on the brink of bankruptcy, according to a recent FORBES article. Then, the bank pulled its credit line. 

"Some people would tell you we were weeks away from the bank taking our keys, others would tell you it was days," she told the magazine in a recent interview.

So, Guarino did what many enterprising Americans would do to save her business during the Great Recession of 2008. She took out a second mortgage and maxed out her credit cards. That still wasn't enough to keep her full staff on.

She was forced to let all but four employees go, which meant the J.W. Hulme CEO had to take on an array of new roles including that of receptionist and janitor -- to keep the company afloat.

Little did she expect an angel investor to materialize following a less-than-optimistic Wall Street Journal story to help her chart her company's course back to near-bankruptcy to $1.4 million in profits.

But, you would think Guarino and her company would be without a care now? Wrong. She's got a new problem on her hands that could potentially run her out of business despite her recent successes. That of replacing her aging baby boomer workforce.

The decision by most U.S. clothing/accessories manufacturers to offshore their production has created a shortage of high-end sewers. Fewer Americans under the age of 50 pursued the trade as the labor market dried up.

Now, Guarino is on a mission to train future high-end craftsmen in the art of sewing. She managed to get local community colleges in the St. Paul, Minn., area to adopt a curriculum to achieve her goal.

She's realistic about the likelihood of returning all offshored manufacturing home but contends that bring back as little as 10 percent will go a long way economically.   

Observed Guarino to FORBES: "Look, what this is really about is being able to say yes when someone calls us wanting to bring their manufacturing business back to the U.S. ... I’m not a purist. I’m not saying that everything in our homes should be made in the U.S.A and I’m not saying we could produce every shirt in WalMart. I know we can’t! But if we can train workers well enough to be able to bring even 10% of the manufacturing industry back to the country, the economic impact would be undeniable."

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