Competitiveness. It's the buzzword of the year, the reason the dollar has plunged, the aim of dozens of trade bills in Congress. But what does American business think it needs to become more competitive? Monitor economics correspondent Ron Scherer asked five key corporate leaders - in industries ranging from steel and textiles to finance and agriculture - to look at the issue. Here's what they think.

Dewey L. Trogdon Chairman of Cone Mills in Greensboro, N.C. THE United States textile industry is already one of our nation's most competitive industries. The textile, fiber, and apparel industry employs 2.3 million Americans. More than 5,000 US textile companies compete fiercely with each other and with overseas manufacturers. Fabric sales are often made on the basis of a penny a yard. Over the past decade, the industry has invested $1.5 billion a year in modernization, boosting productivity some 5 percent a year, compared with 2.4 percent for all manufacturing. The textile industry spends 80 percent of its internally generated funds for new investment in itself. It has not bought shopping centers, oil companies, or circuses. It has improved performance and quality.

Building on the success of the ``Crafted With Pride'' campaign to show the consumer that US textile products are a good buy, the industry is working with its customers and suppliers to get high-quality goods to the consumer faster. Using high technology, this ``Quick Response'' effort has produced startling results.

My company, a major denim and corduroy manufacturer, has cut lead times to produce certain fabrics from seven weeks to a little over three weeks. Our customers can reduce their fabric inventories (and, therefore, costs) from four weeks to less than three days.

Still, textile and apparel imports have nearly tripled since 1980 - from 4.8 billion square yards to more than 12.7 billion square yards in 1986, and now claim over half the US apparel market. Over the past five years the industry has lost 350,000 jobs. As these jobs disappear, American workers all too often find only lower-paying jobs that reduce their standard of living.

Our investment and modernization and quicker response cannot offset the 20-cents-an-hour wages paid by some of our major overseas competitors. Only legislation that slows import growth to domestic market growth will allow the industry and its workers to realize the benefits of having helped themselves.

It is time to save a basic and competitive domestic industry. The competitiveness buzzwords about opening foreign markets, providing assistance and training for unemployed workers, and all of the other excuses are not the answer. We need to know that imports will be slowed so that we will have the confidence to continue to make major investments - in people, in research on new fabrics, in new equipment, quality, flexibility, and service. Our investment is not only an investment in our companies and in the lives of the people we employ, but, more important, an investment in our nation's future.

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