- U.S. furniture makers are up against a unique challenge — finding skilled workers to keep up with demand.
- To solve the labor problems, furniture manufacturers in North Carolina founded an academy to train workers and guarantee them jobs at high wages.
- Still, companies continue to battle the public perception that manufacturing jobs are low tech and unreliable.
In the face of an ongoing trade war and a historically tight labor market, furniture makers in America are up against a unique challenge — finding skilled workers to keep up with demand.
Interest in certain products, like upholstered sofas and armchairs, made in the U.S. is on the rise, but the number of workers with the skills and experience needed to meet increased demand seems out of reach.
In January 2000, more than 670,000 workers were employed in furniture manufacturing but that plummeted to just 360,000 in 2010. Numbers have risen slightly in recent years, however, hovering closer to the 400,000-employee mark.
In North Carolina, furniture companies have turned to the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy in Hickory. Catawba Valley Community College had a furniture manufacturing course for 40 years, but as graduates struggled to find work upon completing the program and the curriculum failed to keep up with changing technology, its relevancy waned. To help bring it back to life, the college teamed up with five local furniture makers in the area — founding partners are Century Furniture, Lee Industries, Lexington Home Brands, Sherrill Furniture and Vanguard Furniture.
Students like Casey Pennington study for up to nine months at the academy and then are guaranteed a job at one of the participating companies. Pennington's husband is an instructor at the academy and a fifth-generation furniture maker.
"There's definitely an art to it," Pennington, 27, said. "It's not something you can just sit down and know how to do."
Beyond that, the pay available can reach up to $30 an hour for those with experience, offering a life-changing raise for students.
"It's in high demand," Pennington said. "I'll have less worry and more money in my pocket. It would definitely be beneficial to us."
The program started in January 2014 and takes place four days a week in the evenings over the course of six to nine months. Students learn different disciplines from sewing to upholstery and tuition is $600. Since its inception, 320 students have graduated and the program has a 100% hiring rate — a welcome statistic for both workers and companies alike.
For Bassett Furniture, which has an upholstery manufacturing facility in Newton, North Carolina, the competition is steep in this tight job market.
"We're all fighting for the same pool of workers, and there's not a large pool of workers out there that actually want to come and work here. There's still, in a lot of parts of the county in the area, the thought process that the manufacturers are not stable, because the furniture industry's had its highs and lows," said Mike Kreidler, vice president of upholstery at Bassett Furniture. "The furniture industry is extremely stable."
On its recent earnings call, the company's CEO, Rob Spillman, said both the "tight labor market and the aging of the core baby boomer workforce are factors that must be dealt with, both today and for the future."
Companies and the academy are reaching out to younger students in high school to try to pique their interest in potential careers early on, and potentially begin training them earlier. This is something the National Association of Manufacturers is also leaning heavily into, to help fill a broader gap in the sector. Manufacturing has nearly half a million open positions industrywide. Part of that is changing public perception about the industry, and showing that it's a more high-tech and steady career than many had previously believed.
"People are our greatest challenge, because they are our greatest asset," Kreidler said. "Skilled workers are hard to come by and it's hard to bring people in and train them from the ground up."
That's where academy students like Madison Laws come into play. The soon-to-be graduate has already landed a job at Bassett as a sewer.
"I honestly didn't think I would get this job as soon as I did, so I'm really lucky," Laws, 18, said.
— CNBC's Nick Wells contributed to this report.