You know the backlog for new business must be soft when the economy outranks employee recruitment and retention as the No. 1 concern of WOOD 100 company executives.

Such was the case with the 18th Annual WOOD 100 Report published by Wood & Wood Products in July. Seventy of the WOOD 100 executives indicated that the economy is one of their top three concerns, including 44 who chose it head and shoulders above a list containing a baker’s dozen issues. In comparison, 47 selected employee recruitment/retention among their top three concerns, including 18 who ranked it first.

Over the 18-year history of the WOOD 100 Report, the inability to find, train and retain good woodworkers has been cited as a perennial thorn in the side of WOOD 100 companies. If some of North America’s most successful wood products companies are having trouble finding enough good help, heaven help those firms that are operating on a lower plane.

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that a woodworking company can flourish and grow without having a stable and motivated workforce, plus a source of fresh recruits from which to replenish or expand. Installing CNC equipment might reduce the number of workers required for certain operations, but it also opens up the need for having well-trained programmers and operators to maximize the investment in new technology.

In addition, having machine operators cross-trained to handle multiple responsibilities is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The loss of a key employee to illness or vacation can be an inconvenience for any size shop, but it borders on catastrophe when a well-trained operator quits and there is no one adequately trained to step in and perform his duties.

Because skilled woodworkers don’t grow on trees, most companies have to grow their own. This usually entails hiring people with little or no previous woodworking experience and teaching them the ropes, then hoping that those that catch on, stay put.

Skill Standards Redux

The need for training woodworkers to be multi-talented — and retaining them — are key motivations behind the bid to develop woodworking skill standards. That effort was recently renewed by the Architectural Woodwork Institute after receiving a $92,000 matching grant from the USDA Forest Service. The bulk of matching funding has been pledged by the AWI, Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Suppliers, the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America and the Woodworking Machinery Industry Assn.

Coming up with the additional $10,000 in matched funds should be the easy part in comparison to the mountains of mainly volunteer work that will be required to bring this project to fruition.

As envisioned by the AWI, the skill standards will take shape in three phases. The first phase involves creating a framework for development of the skill standards. The second phase will focus on the development of skills criteria and evaluation documents. The final phase would launch a credentialing process.

If everything goes according to plan, initial skill standards could be in place by the end of 2009. Implementation of the credentialing process would take another four years or so.

What It Means

Assuming skill standards come to pass as scheduled, by 2013 woodworkers would have the ability to certify their skills by demonstrating that they meet the skill standards criteria. These earned credentials would be portable, meaning a woodworker’s skill sets would be recognized throughout the North American wood products industry.

Employees would benefit because they would have a measurable way to improve their woodworking competencies and make themselves more valuable to a current or prospective employer. Employers would benefit because it would provide them with a way of screening job applicants and creating incentives for employees to learn new skill sets.

Perhaps most importantly, the industry could benefit because it would heighten the profession and provide more clearly labeled career paths to young adults seeking a job that offers them opportunities and rewards. Creation of skill standards would also dovetail nicely with the goals of WoodLINKS USA.

Get Involved

The AWI is currently seeking volunteers from all walks of the North American wood products industry to participate in the woodworking skill standards development project. Interested persons should contact Greg Heuer, director of education and membership services of the AWI, at [email protected] for more information.

In addition, a Web site has been established to provide updates of the skill standards project progress at

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