CCC&TI works to provide skills sought by furniture factories

Aug. 08, 2013 @ 08:18 AM

People like to say there are no jobs left in furniture – but Seth McCrary has one.

On a typical workday, McCrary walks into Bernhardt Furniture Plant 7 and laces his fingers together, stretching out his hands to make them as nimble as possible. He’s going to be working with them all day.

Then he grabs a chair out of the “hole,” which is more or less what it sounds like – a tangle of not-entirely-assembled chairs – and gets to work cutting and securing fabric. This first chair might take him 15 minutes or it might take an hour, but either way the work has to be done meticulously.

“It’s got to look good,” McCrary said. “And to look good it’s got to be precise.”

McCrary is an upholsterer. More than 10 years after the North Carolina furniture industry began its decline, workers in skilled jobs such as upholstery not only are still needed, the demand for them is growing. But the men and women who were trained in upholstery (and in jobs like sewing and cutting) when furniture was at its peak are now reaching retirement age or have left the industry – and it has become tougher for furniture factories to find the skilled workers they need.

“There’s definitely an opportunity for upholstery,” said Alvin Daughtridge, vice president of Fairfield Chair Company. “There’s a shortage of upholsterers in the line.”

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute has tried to meet that need through its Upholstery Institute, a three-month course that aims to equip students with the skills they need for entry-level upholstery jobs. McCrary enrolled in the course, and shortly after its completion he was employed.

Ben Willis, who directs CCC&TI’s continuing education programs – including the Upholstery Institute – said it can be tough at first to convince students, some of them the sons and daughters of laid-off factory workers, that furniture jobs still exist.

“I think a lot of people have turned their back on furniture because they think it’s gone,” Willis said. “And it’s not.”

And while most furniture corporations don’t disclose specific financial information, upholstery jobs are seen as not just available but high-paying and ripe for advancement based on skill.

“The wages are far above the average that are posted for Caldwell County,” said William Howard, vice president of Bernhardt Furniture and board chairman for the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. “And so much of how much money you can make is dependent on what your skill level is.”

The program – the next runs Sept. 10 to Dec. 14 – meets three days a week, two in the lab and one for students to learn “soft skills,” everything from job-interviewing tips to forklift operation.

Through the institute, students can learn upholstery in a low-pressure environment whether their motor skills are up to the job, instructor Pete Clark said. When a student makes a mistake, it’s in the classroom – not on the floor.

Both Clark and fellow instructor Dennis Smith are veteran upholsterers. The skills have changed since they started out, becoming, if anything, more specialized. But they still feel they’re carrying on a tradition, Smith said.

“It gives you a lot of satisfaction to know that you’re training somebody in a skill that’s really dying,” he said.

Preston Harper had been having a hard time finding any job he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He was a bed-packer at a Williams Sonoma factory. He saw the work upholsterers did and realized it appealed to him, so he researched the Upholstery Institute and enrolled.

He’s now employed as an upholsterer at Fairfield Chair, and he said he loves his work.

“I get something that’s just plain, nothing on it – and I get to make it something,” Harper said.