Can Wood Businesses Learn from Other Industries?

By Bill Esler | Posted: 11/18/2012 11:33AM


Bill Esler woodworkingnetwork Wood Lumber Custom Cabinets The woodworking industry, along with other businesses, faces a shortage of skilled labor.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics, while not the most insightful analysts, forecasts an 18% growth rate in demand for cabinetmakers through the end of this decade. (For entry-level carpenters assistants in construction, job growth rates are even higher.)

In terms of typical on-the-job training, occupations that typically require apprenticeships are projected to grow the fastest at 22.5 percent. About two 61.6% of those openings will come from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the field.

That's a lot of employees to find. Where wil they come from?

Traci Tapani's hunt for skilled workers could be the story at many woodworking firms. Featured in the newspaper today, Tapani and her sister run Wyoming Machine, a sheet metal company that cuts and shapes in short runs and custom projects - not unlike custom woodshops.

Tapani tells of needing to hire 10 welders in a hurry for a big subcontracting job. The challenge will sound familiar. People interviewed for the jobs were taught their skills in high school shop class or in a family business - in this case welding. But most couldn't qualify for the positions Tapani had open.

  Although the term “woodworker” may evoke the image of a craftsman who builds ornate furniture using hand tools, the modern woodworking trade is highly technical and relies on advanced equipment and highly skilled operators. Workers use automated machinery, such as computerized numerical control (CNC) machines, to do much of the work.

 Even specialized artisans generally use a variety of power tools in their work. Much of the work is done in a high-production assembly line facility, but there is also some work that is customized and does not lend itself to being made in an assembly line. Woodworkers are employed in every part of the secondary wood products industry, from sawmill to finished product, and their activities vary.

Woodworkers set up, operate, and tend all types of woodworking machines, such as drill presses, lathes, shapers, routers, sanders, planers, and wood-nailing machines. Operators set up the equipment, cut and shape wooden parts, and verify dimensions, using a template, caliper, and rule. After wood parts are made, woodworkers add fasteners and adhesives and connect the pieces to form a complete unit. They then sand, stain, and, if necessary, coat the wood product with a sealer, such as a lacquer or varnish.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

People interviewed for the jobs were taught their skills in high school shop class or in a family business - in this case welding. But most couldn't qualify for the positions Tapani had open.

They could make beautiful welds, she said, but they did not understand modern techniques, "They did not know the science," Tapani told commentator Thomas Friedman. "Unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings." So the craftsman (in this case a welder) "has to be ableto read and understand five different drawings in a single day," she says.

Tapani could easily have been talking about custom woodworking, or any other skilled techical production field.

Woodworking businesses as a whole are divided into two groups: custom service businesses, producing individualized projects with customized casegoods, millwork or one-of-a-kind furnishings; and production manufacturers operating in a factory settings.

Though both sides of the business use the same trees and shape and finish them into salable goods, custom cabinetry and interior build outs are tracked tracked by the government either as service businesses, or manufacturing.

All areas of woodworking are experiencing a shortage of labor. But it is the smaller businesses that are more less equipped to train internally. With only one or two specialists in a given area, they don't have the resoures for training. And woodworking skills competency does not always include the ability to train others. 

Here is where the woodworking industry will be well served to look at how other business segments in cultivating employees,

Community colleges have trouble keeping pace with the new skill requirements for industry, notes the author of the article in today's newspaper. He cites education-for-work authority Eduardo Padron, president of  Miami Dade College:

"The skill shortage is real," Padron says. "The big issue is in Ameica is not the fiscal deficit, but the deficit in understanding about educaiton and the role it plays in the knowledge economy."


About the Author

Bill Esler, Woodworking Network, WMS

Bill Esler

Bill Esler, Editorial Director, Woodworking Network Bill is responsible for overall content at Woodworking Network magazine, and related newsletters. Bill also manages event programs for Woodworking Network Live conferences at the Woodworking Machinery & Supplies Expo in Toronto and Cabinets & Closets Expo. He developing audience engagement programs using custom digital printing, live lead-generating events, custom websites, and custom digital and print content. Read Bill Esler's woodworking blogs. He can be reached at or follow him on Google+.

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Georgia  |  November, 20, 2012 at 07:04 AM

Bill, Your article begs the question; what do other industries do to address the skill shortage? Which is to say; training needs?

Bill Esler    
Lincolnshire IL  |  November, 20, 2012 at 10:20 AM

Jim, you're right- here's the solution Tapani used, which also has parallels in the wood industry: Tapani hired a welder who passed the American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector exam: this would be comparable to the Woodwork Career Alliance Passport or the Architectural Woodwork Institute QCP certification for companies in the woodworking field. This certified individual was then able to train others within her sheet metal company, as well as new hires. In this case the company adopted the responsibility for training.


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