HICKORY – North Carolina has a long and proud history as a world leading manufacturer of furniture. It’s one of our state’s heritage industries, yet like many heritage industries in the US, global supply chains and outsourcing took the varnish off a once booming part of the Old North State’s economy. That shine may be coming back, though, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) dives into what it sees as a “renaissance” of the US furniture production, especially in North Carolina. The State’s long experience as a furniture leader, though, belies a dearth of skilled labor to power the resurgence.
“Here’s the good news: There are now more reasons to make furniture in the U.S. than at any point since the financial crisis. Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma Inc. are expanding manufacturing in the U.S., and the factories of longtime furniture makers are humming.
Here’s the bad news: There aren’t enough skilled workers available to support the renaissance.
Manufacturers across the country are struggling to fill open slots in a tight U.S. labor market. Furniture companies, which for decades have been hit by competition from China, face special challenges after years of shrinking. A generation of prospective sewers and upholsterers have steered clear of the industry, leaving it heavily reliant on an aging workforce.
At Century Furniture, based in Hickory, N.C., delivery times have stretched to nearly nine weeks because of the worker shortage, which has caused the company to lose orders.
“I walk around our factories every other day and am spooked by what I see,” said Alex Shuford III, chief executive of RHF Investments Inc., owner of Century and several other furniture brands. “The retirements are coming and I can’t find enough people.”
The turnabout for a once-beleaguered sector has been spurred in part by the internet, which has reshaped shoppers’ behavior and expectations. Consumers demand their choice of fabrics and features but don’t have the patience to wait two months for an item to arrive from Asia. At the same time, tariffs are stepping up pressure on American manufacturers to move production home.
Roughly 90% of dining tables, bookcases and other wooden furniture are now made abroad, according to Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., an investment banking and research firm. But U.S. factories still churn out about half of upholstered furniture sold in this country, much of it in places like Catawba County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Custom upholstery requires skilled labor and isn’t well-suited to long production runs of the same items common in overseas factories. Upholstered sofas and chairs are also more costly and difficult to ship than tables and bookcases, which can be easily stacked and reassembled. Shipping a single custom item from overseas can also be too costly.
“Pretty much all the companies that survived the last crisis have been in a growth mode,” said John Bray, chief executive of Vanguard Furniture Co., which has about 600 employees. “When business picked up, there just weren’t enough skilled people.”
Chad Ballard, 28 years old, was building swimming pools and trimming trees in Daytona Beach, Fla., when he decided to move to Hickory and then take a chance on an entry-level job at Century. Now, four evenings a week, he studies upholstery at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, a skill that could boost his annual pay to $45,000 within a few years and, if he can master the craft, to $75,000 or more.”[CONTINUE READING]