The Urethane Blog

Furniture Revival in the USA

The Booming US Furniture Industry Has Sparked A Desperate Scramble To Find Workers

The U.S. furniture industry is humming right along, with names like Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma the beneficiaries of expanding manufacturing domestically. The tailwind has been sustained growth since the financial crisis and a trade policy that is encouraging more production in the U.S.

But the one problem the industry has now is a lack of skilled workers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Furniture manufacturers across the United States are having trouble filling open slots with the job market as tight as it has ever been in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a generation of sewers and upholsterers have simply avoided the industry, leaving it reliant on an aging workforce.

These bottlenecks show up in metrics like delivery times. For instance, at Century Furniture in Hickory, N.C., delivery times have been stretched to nearly 9 weeks. 

Alex Shuford III, chief executive of RHF Investments Inc., owner of Century, said: “I walk around our factories every other day and am spooked by what I see. The retirements are coming and I can’t find enough people.”

The turnaround in the industry can be attributed to the internet, which allows consumers to demand and customize their choice of fabrics and features. China acts as competition for the U.S. in this regard, often able to customize and ship furniture with a much quicker lead time than 2 months. Tariffs continue to keep pressure on manufacturers to keep production in the U.S.

But 90% of all dining tables, bookcases and other wooden furniture are made overseas. U.S. factories crank out about half of upholstered furniture in the country.

It’s the custom upholstery that requires skilled labor and isn’t suited well for assembly line style mass production. Upholstered products are also more difficult to ship, because they can’t be stacked or reassembled.

John Bray, chief executive of Vanguard Furniture Co., which has about 600 employees, said: “Pretty much all the companies that survived the last crisis have been in a growth mode. When business picked up, there just weren’t enough skilled people.”

28 year old Chad Ballard took on an entry level job at Century and is now studying upholstery at a local community college. It’s a skill that could boost his annual pay to as high as $75,000 if he can master the craft. Hiring Ballard was a “small victory” for Century, which has a constant opening for about 35 sewers at any given time.

Century’s VP of human resources said of his hiring: “He came to us through a temporary agency. We won the lottery.”

In his county, 42% of sewing machine operators and 33% of upholsterers are 55 of older.

Bill McBrayer, director of human resources for Lexington Home Brands, asked: “How do we get the young and old to come back to the industry?”

One attempt has been the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy, which was created by local companies to train furniture makers and offers benefits like free health clinics. The academy launched in 2014 and students spend 8 months studying manual cutting or sewing. The total cost ranges between $425 and $600. It graduates about 150 people a year – but the industry requires about 800 to 1,000 people. 

But it isn’t all optimism surrounding the industry. One executive asked: “The toughest question is the one that haunts us forever: What makes me think that if my child goes into this industry it will be there in two years?”

Nathaniel Kaylor, a 21-year-old student at the academy concluded: “My dad has been in furniture his whole life. He told me from the get-go to stay out of it. You get old fast. Go to college.”