On an average night in January at the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy in Newton, about a dozen students are practicing cutting, sewing, and assembling amid hundreds of frames and bolts of fabric.
Catawba Valley Community College launched the Newton academy in 2014, then added the Alexander Furniture Academy in Taylorsville two years later. The furniture companies that helped launch the program donate the materials.
“They’ve truly come together for the greater good of the community and the industry,” said R. Gary Muller, executive dean of economic development and corporate education at CVCC, gesturing toward a wall displaying the names of Century Furniture, Lee Industries, Lexington Home Brands, and other corporate donors. “We are very proud of this, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
One of the biggest problems facing furniture manufacturers is a shortage of workers trained in the necessary skills. An entire generation of skilled laborers left the industry when manufacturing jobs went overseas, and the ones who remained are hitting retirement age. Add in a widespread preference for white collar work, and manufacturers are left with jobs they can’t fill.
Enter the furniture academies.
“We collaborate with the companies, we find out what is needed, and based off that necessity we specialize a training,” said Brian Craig, director of the Catawba Valley academy. “It’s just that simple.”
Backers of the program claim it fills the gap between employer needs and workforce skills, connecting the region’s population to quality jobs that don’t require a college degree but still offer good benefits and wages up to $100,000. In the process, they also hope to attract other manufacturers. If it works, it means a lot of new furniture consumers for the high-end domestic manufacturers in the area.
But in reality, the marquee wages are reserved for executives and highly trained (often college educated) specialists. The national median wage for upholsterers, according to May 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, was less than $37,000. Other furniture production jobs are comparable.
Yet even those much more modest wages are good enough that Brenda Brittain drives 72 miles each way from Polk County to attend the furniture academy, aiming to change careers after nine years as a certified nursing assistant and 20 years as a phlebotomist before that. “I’ve always, in the back of my mind, been interested in upholstery,” she said.
The pride of crafting a piece of fine furniture is key, but so is the money, along with the benefits and less physically taxing work. Brittain had just started making $16 an hour as a CNA; cutters, who cut fabric into patterns for sewers, now start at $20 an hour, said Deb Elliot, a veteran cutter who teaches at the academy in addition to working as a CNA herself.
“That’s not a great big amount of money, but it’s better than a nursing home and busting your butt and having the stress levels that you have in there,” she said.
Scott Reid, another student, wanted those improved working conditions so badly that he took a pay cut from his 20-year career as a local truck driver. He was mostly delivering to furniture factories but has now moved inside the building to the cutting floor.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been fighting back pain and just wanted to get out of the truck,” Reid said. “I just met so many people in the industry and went to high school with people in the industry and just thought I’d like to give it a try.”
CVCC is high on the model used by the furniture academies, even adapting it to other industries like maintenance technology, healthcare, and hospitality. But in furniture, they’re still pushing against the economic tide.
One sign of the times is that long-running furniture manufacturing programs at North Carolina State University and High Point University shuttered in years past as factories closed. In their place today are high-tech engineering degrees at State and a design program at High Point, neither of which does much to fill the factory floor or grow employment opportunities for those without college degrees.
Furniture is still a big enough industry that it can hire a lot more people for $37,000 a year. But the bulk of them are more likely to be the retail and customer service jobs dominating the rest of the economy.
Matt Hartman is an Assembly contributing writer based in Durham. He’s also written for The Ringer, Jacobin, The Outline, and other outlets.