New military recruits will soon be required to wear athletic footwear made in the United States, like athletic shoes made at New Balance production centers in Norridgewock and Skowhegan.
The change expands the Berry Amendment, the law that requires the Department of Defense to buy certain products, including food and clothing, from American companies. The department on Friday announced it will expand the law to also require military personnel to spend their one-time allowance for footwear on American-made shoes.
The change doesn’t guarantee job creation or new sales for New Balance, but state and company officials are optimistic it will. It wasn’t clear Friday when the law will go into effect.
“We don’t have an estimate on the number of jobs now, but it’s a victory in our eyes,” said Matt LeBretton, vice president of public affairs for New Balance. “We’ll be putting help wanted signs outside our factories to make these shoes. It absolutely means job creation in the state of Maine.”
The company has three factories in Maine, in Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan. The Norridgewock and Skowhegan factories, in Somerset County, each employ about 350 people and together produce about 7,100 pairs of shoes a year.
Shoes produced at the factory are made from at least 70 percent U.S. produced materials, complying with fair trade law, LeBretton said. To comply with the Berry Amendment, 100 percent of the materials must come from the U.S.
LeBretton said it will take time to start manufacturing the company’s Berry-compliant shoe, which is not in production. Factories in both Maine and Massachusetts would likely perform the work, he said.
Athletic footwear is one of the only pieces of military attire that the Pentagon has exempted from the 1941 law that requires that all clothing supplied to personnel be made in the U.S. from domestically sourced materials.
In letters sent to U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox wrote that the Pentagon “has an interest in having our recruits purchase domestically manufactured athletic shoes to the maximum extent practicable.” Recruits entering basic training are issued cash vouchers to buy sneakers from the military exchange stores.
Fox said while no Berry-compliant shoes are on the market, several footwear companies have shown the capability to produce the shoes “in the near future.”
“As Berry Amendment-compliant shoes come on the market, we will assess them for cost and durability to ensure they are comparable to other models available to recruits,” Fox wrote. “If one or more comparable Berry Amendment-compliant shoe models correspond to a shoe type category, only these shoes will be made available for purchase using the one-time cash allowance.”
Michaud, who is also the Democratic candidate for Maine governor, has made several visits to both the Skowhegan and Norridgewock factories in recent years and called on the federal government to adopt the Berry Amendment practices.
“It’s great news for New Balance,” Michaud said. “I know they’re all very excited and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it. Hopefully we can have our brave warriors wear 100 percent of their clothing made in America.”
Michaud said the issue has been important to him since 2010 and he has met several times with President Barack Obama to discuss it, including hand-delivering the president with a customized pair of New Balance sneakers. Senior defense officials also toured New Balance’s Norridgewock factory last year at the request of Collins, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, have also pressed defense officials on the Berry Amendment issue.
In 2011, Michaud introduced the American Shoes for American Servicemembers Act, which specified that the Berry Amendment should apply to all components of U.S. troops’ uniforms, including footwear.
“It’s just been something that any chance I had to speak to administrators that could have an impact, I would bring it up,” Michaud said Friday. “Two weeks ago when I was over at the White House, when the Red Sox came down, I brought it up to folks at the White House again. Persistence does pay off.”
New Balance isn’t the only American company that makes compliant footwear. Competitors include Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine, and Michaud said the changes may also be incentive for other companies to bring their manufacturing back to the United States.
New Balance, which is based in Boston, has five production centers in the U.S., including three in Maine and two in Massachusetts. According to its website, 25 percent of its shoes sold in the U.S. are produced in the United States, making it one of the country’s largest producers of American athletic footwear.
LeBretton said the company has already presented the Department of Defense with a prototype of a compliant shoe made 100 percent in the U.S. Typically, the department buys items in bulk, but with the changes announced Friday service members will be given vouchers for athletic shoes that can be used at compliant manufacturers.
“We’re really excited about this policy change,” LeBretton said. “There’s still work ahead of us, but this is a great step.”
Portland Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller contributed to this report.Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]