Shoe manufacturing has long been a staple industry in the United States. However, with increasing global competition and automation, the prospects of a long-term career in shoe manufacturing may seem uncertain. In this in-depth article, we’ll examine the current state of the shoe manufacturing industry in America and analyze the pros and cons of pursuing a career in shoe making.
Overview of the Shoe Manufacturing Industry in the US
Shoemaking was once a thriving industry in the United States, with most footwear being manufactured domestically. However, in recent decades there has been a dramatic decline in US shoe production due to globalization and outsourcing to countries with lower labor costs.
Some key points about the current US shoe manufacturing industry:
- Employs about 12,000 workers in shoe production. Total US footwear industry employs about 185,000.
- Concentrated in traditional shoemaking hubs like New England, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
- Average hourly wage for shoe production workers is $16.23/hr according to 2021 data.
- Domestic production comprises only 2% of shoes sold in the US today. 98% are imported, mostly from China and Vietnam.
- Remains highly labor-intensive with limited automation. However, custom 3D printed shoes are an emerging trend.
- Major domestic manufacturers left include New Balance, Wolverine, and Red Wing Shoes – most focus on niche markets.
While the industry has declined significantly from its peak, shoe production does continue in the United States, primarily focused on high-end and orthopedic footwear. The ability to tout American craftsmanship and made in USA appeal helps justify the higher costs of domestic production.
The Case For Shoe Manufacturing as a Career
Despite ongoing challenges for US shoe manufacturing, there remain reasons why it could still be a worthwhile career path for some job seekers.
Preserving Traditional Craftsmanship
Shoemaking has a long cultural history in America. For those interested in preserving traditional trades and craftsmanship, entering the shoe industry can be a way to maintain heritage skills that are increasingly rare. Most shoemaking roles involve hands-on work and learning old-world techniques.
Demand for Niche Products
While mass-market shoe production has moved overseas, there are still segments of the population who seek out specialty shoes made domestically. This includes occupational footwear (like work boots), orthopedic shoes, sustainability-focused brands, and those wanting US-made craftsmanship. Pursuing a career with companies filling these niches can provide more stability.
Availability of Apprenticeships
Getting into shoemaking often starts with an apprenticeship program, allowing you to learn skills hands-on. Respected shoe companies like Allen Edmonds and Alden Shoes offer formal training programs to get started in the industry. Apprenticeships provide education at little to no cost.
Potential for Entrepreneurship
In addition to joining established companies, starting your own small shoe workshop or brand remains an option. The rise of e-commerce and custom shoe design software has made launching an independent shoemaking business more feasible today. Be prepared to start small and local.
Facilitating Made in USA Movement
Some job seekers find motivation in being part of the reshoring effort – bringing manufacturing back to America. Domestic shoe production, though small, supports this movement. Your work keeps traditional skills alive and local communities thriving.
Lower Barriers to Entry
Unlike many manufacturing fields, working in shoe production has relatively minimal education requirements beyond a high school diploma and on-the-job training. This can be appealing if you are seeking a hands-on career without college.
Chance to Learn Real Skills
Even if you don’t stay in shoemaking long-term, the hands-on training you receive allows you to develop transferable skills. This can include design, working with materials, quality control, enterprise software, machinery operation, and general manufacturing processes.
Potential Downsides of a Career in Shoe Manufacturing
However, there remain significant downsides to entering the declining shoe manufacturing industry that must be considered.
Limited Job Opportunities
There are only about 12,000 US shoe manufacturing jobs currently. Open positions don’t come available frequently. Getting your foot in the door often requires persistence. Be prepared to potentially start with part-time or seasonal roles.
At Risk for Offshoring
Many major shoemaking jobs have moved overseas in the past 20 years. There’s always risk that additional domestic operations get sent abroad for cheaper labor. This can quickly eliminate job security. Keep an eye on your employers’ outsourcing plans.
Average shoe manufacturing wages are under $17/hour. While experience and skills will increase pay, shoemaking involves tedious manual labor and compensation often reflects that. Overtime hours may be required to earn a sufficient living wage.
Impact of Automation
shoemaking remains labor-intensive. However, increasing automation is making production more efficient. As robotics and 3D printing play a bigger role, there will be less need for large workforces. Be prepared to continually adapt skills.
Limited Advancement Potential
Besides supervisory roles, there are not a wide variety of positions to be promoted to in shoe production facilities. Workers often perform the same task for many years. Some may find the work monotonous after a long period of time.
High Injury Risk
The repetitive nature of shoe assembly work makes musculoskeletal injuries a real concern. Standing for 8+ hours per day and using vibrating machinery can take a toll. Choosing an ergonomically focused company can help mitigate risks. Proper safety training is a must.
Vulnerable to Economic Conditions
Footwear is a consumer cyclical industry. In down economies when discretionary spending drops, shoe sales slump. This can force layoffs or reduced hours. Job security takes a hit. Being part of a niche stable brand or having transferable skills helps hedge.
Key Factors to Consider for a Career in Shoe Manufacturing
If you’re exploring a career in shoe production, keep the following key points in mind:
Passion for Craft
Success comes easier if shoemaking really interests you – don’t just view it as any manufacturing job. Appreciation for the heritage craft will make the work more rewarding.
Willingness to Learn Hands-On
Almost all training happens directly on the job. Be ready to dive into an apprenticeship and learn from experienced cobblers. You’ll gain skills by actively doing tasks each day.
Attention to Detail
Shoemaking requires precision and consistency. The ability to spot defects and make adjustments is crucial for quality control. Meticulous workers tend to thrive.
Expect to be on your feet all day. The work also involves some heavy lifting and use of machinery. Having strength and stamina will prevent injuries and fatigue.
Adaptability to Change
As production methods and materials evolve, being flexible will be key. Don’t expect to only learn one specific skillset. Focus on adaptability.
Secondary Education Options
While not required, relevant associate degrees in footwear/leather design or manufacturing technology can provide useful preparation and backup skills.
If set on shoe production, prepare to relocate to hubs with remaining manufacturers. Opportunities are concentrated in New England, Pennsylvania, Missouri and select other states.
Understand the industry’s decline and competitive pressures. But recognize there are still niche markets and pride in preserving a traditional craft. Define what success in the role looks like for you.
Steps to Start a Career in Shoe Manufacturing
If ready to pursue shoe production work, here are practical steps to take:
Seek Out Apprenticeships
Contact footwear brands like Red Wing, Wolverine, Allen Edmonds, or Alden to ask about apprentice programs. Expect 1-2 year commitments to learn fundamentals. Be willing to relocate.
Leverage Trade Schools
For more formal training before apprenticeship, enroll in a program like those at Arsutoria School of Shoe & Design or Berwick Academy. They teach shoe design, pattern making, materials, equipment use, etc.
Attend Industry Events
Go to annual events like the FDRA Sourcing & Sustainability Summit or Two Ten Footwear Foundation events. Great for networking and finding job openings.
Join Online Communities
For continued learning and connection to others in shoe craftsmanship, join groups like r/Cordwaining on Reddit or the Shoemaking Discord server.
Internships at brands like Sperry, Wolverine, or smaller local workshops can provide short-term experience if apprenticeships are unavailable.
Evaluate Transferable Skills
Determine what transferable skills you gain in each role, even at declining factories. Technical expertise and machining skills may open doors in other industries later.
Research Niche Opportunities
Look for roles focused on orthopedic, sustainable, or occupational footwear where domestic manufacturing persists. These niche markets have more stability.
Be Willing to Relocate
If job options are limited in your area, prepare to move to traditional shoemaking hubs. Many jobs are concentrated in specific towns. Commuting or relocation is often necessary.
Launching your own small brand allows you creative freedom in shoemaking. Start local and grow online. Utilize custom manufacturing programs from companies like Vibram.
Shoe Manufacturing Career Paths and Progression
Here are some of the common roles and career progressions within shoe production facilities:
- Shoe Machine Operators: Run machinery like cutting presses, cementers, and stitchers. Repeat tasks for efficiency.
- Shoe Lasters: Shape and form shoe uppers over a shoe last to assemble parts.
- Shoe Assemblers: Join and fit together shoe parts from uppers to soles using tools and adhesives.
- Shoe Cutters: Draw, cut, and prepare shoe upper parts like vamps and quarters using dies and knives.
- Shoe Stitchers: Use industrial sewing machines to stitch together shoe uppers.
- Shoe Finishers: Apply edge trimming, buffing, and final finishing touches before inspection.
Specialized & Supervisory
- Sample Shoemakers: Craft shoes by hand rather than machine for design testing and small batches.
- Shoe Patternmakers: Design and create templates for shoe parts that serve as guides for cutting leather.
- Shoe Designers: Design aesthetics and function of shoes using computer-aided design (CAD) software.
- Plant Supervisors: Oversee workflow, production output, quality control, and personnel issues on the factory floor.
Management & Executive
- Manufacturing Managers: Manage inventory control, shipment coordination, compliance, and multiple aspects of the production process.
- Sourcing Managers: Determine raw material needs and coordinate purchasing of leather hides and component parts.
- Operations Executives: Direct overall strategy, output, budgeting, and objectives for domestic manufacturing facilities.
There are opportunities to progress from entry-level machine operation roles to specialized functions like sample making or design. On the managerial track, advancement to plant supervisor, manufacturing management or even VP of operations is possible over time.
Key Takeaways on Shoe Manufacturing as a Career
- Shoe production in America has severely declined but niche opportunities remain in occupational, orthopedic, and other specialty footwear.
- Remaining domestic manufacturers are concentrated in traditional shoemaking strongholds like New England, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
- Apprenticeships and trade schools are the primary forms of entry-level training rather than college degrees.
- Expect a hands-on, labor-intensive job requiring physical stamina and close attention to detail.
- Strong technical expertise, shoemaking passion, and flexibility will be advantageous in the evolving industry.
- There are possibilities to advance in management, supervision, design, and skilled production roles once established.
- A pragmatic outlook is needed regarding economic challenges and automation impacts on long-term career stability.
- With dedication, shoe manufacturing can be rewarding for those seeking to preserve heritage craft skills and connect to made in USA movement.
Frequently Asked Questions About Shoe Manufacturing Careers
What types of footwear are still made in the USA?
Occupational shoes and boots, orthopedic footwear, and niche high-end men’s dress shoes remain the primary types still domestically produced. Brands like Red Wing, Wolverine, Allen Edmonds and New Balance lead this market.
What states have the most shoe manufacturing jobs?
Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, and Maine have the highest remaining shoe production employment. Within these states, jobs concentrate in small towns that historically housed major shoemaking factories.
How much do entry level shoe factory jobs pay?
Entry-level shoe machine operators and assemblers earn around $12 – $16 per hour on average. With experience over several years, salaries may rise to $18 – $22 per hour.
What qualifications do you need to work in a shoe factory?
A high school diploma and mechanical aptitude are the minimum credentials. Brands hiring look for manual dexterity, focus, physical stamina, and ability to use hand tools and machinery safely after on-site training.
Is a college degree required for a shoe manufacturing career?
A college degree is not mandatory. Trade school training is helpful but most training is through 1-2 year company apprenticeships. Some management roles may require a college degree as you advance.
How risky is it to get into shoe production given industry declines?
There are certainly risks of layoffs and plant closures given offshore competition and automation shifts. Seeking niche brands with stability and developing transferable skills can hedge risks. Passion for the craft helps overcome challenges.
What are advancement opportunities beyond production line roles?
With experience, advancement can include supervisory roles, skilled positions in cutting, stitching or sample making, shift to design or management functions, and potentially launching one’s own small brand.
How can I get started in shoe manufacturing?
Reach out to brands directly about apprenticeship programs, attend industry events to network, complete relevant trade school courses, or gain experience through internships. Be willing to relocate to current manufacturing hubs.
Shoe manufacturing may seem like an industry of the past in America, but for passionate artisans and those seeking hands-on work with tangible products, it can still offer rewarding career potential. While the realities of globalization necessitate prudent expectations when entering the field, domestic producers focused on high-end men’s shoes, occupational footwear, and orthopedics continue to find success in niche markets by emphasizing quality, heritage craft skills, and made in USA appeal. By gaining expertise via apprenticeships and trade programs, demonstrating a meticulous work ethic, and staying flexible amidst change, there are still opportunities today to find pride and creativity as a shoe craftsperson while contributing to a cherished traditional trade.