N.C. furniture industry is hurting for skilled workers

Few young people are entering a field that has long been characterized by layoffs 

CorrespondentJanuary 5, 2013 

  • The changing N.C. furniture industry Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the number of furniture manufacturing jobs in the Hickory area has dropped from about 29,000 in 2002 to 14,000 today. Furniture and related industries contributed almost $1.2 billion in 2001 to the four-county Hickory region. The most recent estimate, from 2008, is down to $837 million, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness. The biggest loss to Chinese manufacturers was case goods – wooden household furniture. Still, the N.C. furniture industry faces a shortage of skilled workers in coming years as people retire and fewer young people enter the field. Those in short supply include upholsterers and sewing machine operators. Following are some hourly wages in some Hickory-area furniture jobs in 2010: Upholsterers: $18.09 Cutters and trimmers (hand): $15.17 Sewing machine operators: $14.13

— The N.C. furniture industry, its workforce cut in half by manufacturing abroad and automation at home, faces a new challenge: a lack of skilled workers.

Fewer young people are entering the field after seeing their parents and grandparents endure round after round of layoffs in N.C. furniture plants, according to a recent study of the furniture workforce.

It’s a counterintuitive finding: This hometown industry, famous nationwide, has been decimated by layoffs but can’t find enough people with up-to-date skills.

Although the furniture industry will continue to shrink, the most skilled workers – upholsters and sewers – are already in short supply, and the problem will worsen as those people retire, says Mark White, a researcher with the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, based in Arlington, Va.

The problem will be most critical in Catawba, Burke, Alexander and Caldwell counties, where 41 percent of the state’s furniture jobs are located.

“The workforce is aging, and fewer young people are looking for those jobs,” White said.

A decade ago, 19 percent of furniture builders were 55 and older. Today, it’s 28 percent.

Workers younger than 35 make up only 15 percent of the workforce, the CREC study said.

Many see the closed plants and figure there’s no future in furniture.

“We’ve been told manufacturing is dead, and after a while we believe it,” said Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center, a nonprofit research and testing office in Conover. “But you just answer my phone and hear (furniture companies) begging for people, you know it’s not dead.”

That is why it is so important to bring young people into the field, he said.

Scott Regenbogen, a former design director at Century Furniture, says the field needs techno-savvy young people who enjoy working with their hands. “We use tools that are pretty space age. It is not just working in a dark, dusty shop,” said Regenbogen, now a product development specialist at the Manufacturing Solutions Center.

Part of the answer is making sure schools offer woodworking and metal shop classes for students who enjoy working with their hands, as well as training workers for the new challenges of furniture manufacturing, Regenbogen said.

“There are opportunities,” White said. “They are not looking for high school dropouts. They need adaptable people, not cogs in a wheel. They are running complicated, expensive machinery. These skills are learned over a lifetime.”

Already, furniture workers are in short supply in some skilled occupations.

The pipeline that kept skilled workers employed has developed a crimp. Sophisticated, high-end manufacturers traditionally hired workers from more basic plants where they learned their skills. But many of those plants have gone out of business.

That means furniture companies now provide more in-house training.

Community colleges should design specific, short-term classes to produce the kind of workers that furniture companies want, White said.

Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, which commissioned the workforce study, is looking for ways to provide that training and is teaching students how to operate sophisticated machines, said John Enamait, dean of business, industry and technology.

“Manufacturing is no longer putting a widget on a conveyor belt,” Enamait said. “It requires critical thinking skills. The jobs are coming back, and companies are struggling to find skilled workers.”

No more dusty plants

The furniture industry has changed, even if its image hasn’t.

The dusty plants are disappearing. Computers that run the complicated machinery can’t function in a dirty environment.

The most successful companies are flexible, efficient, willing to customize, build small numbers of pieces, and invest in training and high-tech machinery. “They cannot stop innovating,” White said.

Having the cheapest price is not the answer. “If they are competing on cost, they’ve already lost,” White said.

Hickory Chair, a 101-year-old company in southeast Hickory, is adapting to the new order.

While other furniture plants are closing, Hickory Chair has hired 86 new people this year and is looking for more.

President Jay Reardon says the company has had three consecutive years of increased sales. In the past, the company had annual price increases, but in the past decade has raised them only three times.

Labor accounts for 18 to 22 percent of a product’s costs, so Hickory Chair set out to find other ways to spend less. Its employees had the answers.

“There is no way I can think like 586 people,” said Reardon, who started at the company in 1981 as a salesman.

Employees have learned how to make the workflow more efficient, how to adjust patterns to reduce waste, how to make the job easier for the next person down the line, how to build it right the first time.

Among its savings, the company has cut electrical usage 15 percent and water usage 17 percent.

In a two-year period, it cut shipments to the landfill by 300 tons by wasting less wood, fabric and other material. Inventories are half what they once were and delivery time is down – upholstery products in 14 to 21 days and wood products in two weeks or less.

In a typical year, Hickory Chair employees offer 1,300 suggestions on how to improve operations. A committee of workers and supervisors sort out and implement the best suggestions.

Well-trained, motivated employees are the company’s biggest asset, Reardon said, adding he has no problem attracting young workers.

“They are not ‘hands,’ ” Reardon said. “They have a craft, a vocation.”

A major emphasis is a willingness to customize a piece to suit the customer – the style of bureau legs, the length of a couch, the height of a table.

“It is the customization that gets us new customers,” Reardon said. “We will make one of something. We can make things like a cabinet shop can.”

His firm, which specializes in high-end furniture, brings in 40 designers and buyers a month to take part in its Hickory Chair University. Many who tour the factory are surprised by the refinished wooden floors and bright natural light. It looks like a big workroom, not a factory.

Visitors learn about the company philosophy, meet the workers and watch furniture being made.

They talk about how employees try to get the best out of each other. “We’re a Dean Smith place, not a Bobby Knight place,” Reardon said.

Manufacturing experts such as Enamait say the high cost of transportation, poor quality and long lead times are bringing more furniture jobs back home.

“We need people with skills to produce goods if we are going to have a well-balanced economy,” Enamait said. “The jobs are coming back. They are just different than they used to be.”

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