One-on-One Archives.

November 2005

Standardizing Woodworking Skills: Is It Time?

A much-anticipated study regarding the potential for developing woodworking skill standards is being conducted via a grant from the USDA Forest Service to the Architectural Woodwork Institute.

By Katie Coleman

Sixty-nine of the 100 executives in Wood & Wood Products' 16th Annual WOOD 100 Report listed "employee recruitment/retention" and/or "employee skills" as one of their top three concerns. (See the August 2005 issue.)

For the better part of the last two decades, various wood industry associations have looked for a way to reverse that trend. One of the latest initiatives involves the potential creation of national woodworking skill standards.

Skill Standards Project Goals

According to D.J. Case's Web site, the goal of the National Wood Industry Skill standards is to assess the potential of skill standards, not for the development of the standards. The specific objectives of the effort are to:

  • Review and evaluate past skill standards development activities for wood manufacturing industries;
  • Review and evaluate past successful skill standards development activities from other manufacturing industries (e.g. metalworking);
  • Develop a detailed conceptual framework for what should be contained in National Wood Industry Skill standards for the secondary wood processing industry;
  • Develop a detailed strategic plan for how a National Wood Industry Skill standards program would be organized, operated, governed and funded;
  • Obtain detailed estimates of the potential costs involved in the development of National Wood Industry Skill standards;
  • Obtain written letters of support from key leaders representing the wood industry, equipment manufacturing and woodworker education community endorsing the recommended approach contained in the detailed Skill Standard conceptual framework and strategic plan for how National Wood Industry Skill standards would be organized, operated, governed and funded.

In October 2004, the Architectural Woodwork Institute received a grant from the USDA Forest Service Wood Education and Resource Center to investigate creating National Wood Manufacturing Skill Standards. In announcing the grant award, Al Steele, interim director of the WERC, said, "Other industries which have developed skill standards report significant improvements in their ability to better target recruitment and training efforts. If skill standards can be developed and accepted by the woodworking community, overall skill levels in the workplace and the efficiency and effectiveness of woodworker training can be markedly improved."

Tim Longwell, a project manager with D.J. Case and Assoc. of Mischawaka, IN, a company specializing in natural resources communication, is spearheading the research project to investigate the feasibility and the pros and cons of woodworking skill standards.

"Association members have expressed an interest in both getting training for woodworkers and offering some kind of credential to those who complete the training," Longwell says. "In order to test competency, it is widely recognized that an established set of skill standards against which one could be tested would have to be in place."

Here, Longwell discusses the project and, specifically, a survey sent to key players in the industry to determine the wants and needs of woodworking professionals for developing skill standards.

Wood & Wood Products: Tell us about the survey itself. What is its purpose? Who does it target? How and when will you know it is complete - is it a time-based initiative or a number-based one?

Tim Longwell: This initial survey is only one of several sources of information and input that will be used during the course of this project. This questionnaire was developed to gather preliminary impressions on which of several broad components of skill standards should be explored and expanded during this effort.

At the beginning of the project, we asked ourselves, "Who should be involved?" The project team developed a list of more than 110 contacts from association staff members, educational institutions, companies and the industry press. A total of 53 individuals completed the questionnaire.

To date, we have focused our communication efforts with this group of "potentially engaged stakeholders." During the Woodworking Industry Leadership Forum (held July 26) before the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas, industry, education and association leaders reviewed the questionnaire and the list of industry contacts. Attendees and members on that list were asked if they knew of other individuals or organizations that may be interested and could contribute to the project.

On July 29, an e-mail announcement was sent to the individuals and organizations on this contact list announcing the opening of the questionnaire and asking them to complete it before Aug. 14.

The purpose of the original questionnaire was to help flesh out some of the important issues. When initiating a project, it is quite common to talk to experts in the field to help develop an initial understanding of the issues. In government and academia, they call these key informant surveys. The answers given by these key informants help to guide the development of a skill standards framework. Once the framework is established, the field is widened with comment invited from the broader woodworking community.

W&WP: According to your company's Web site, "This project was initiated as a result of meetings held with industry representatives and woodworking educators concerned about the long-term competitiveness of the wood industry." What did these meetings attempt to accomplish?

Longwell: The purpose of the meetings was to provide information on skill standards and to explore whether a need existed for equipment operator skill standards in the wood manufacturing industry.

The meeting addressed the nature of skill standards, examined skill standards initiatives in other industries, such as metalworking, and states, such as Pennsylvania and Washington, and discussed the European apprenticeship education system.

A facilitated discussion was held regarding the need to develop skill standards in the wood manufacturing industry, how these skill standards might be developed and the required next steps to produce consensus. Industry and education representatives unanimously confirmed that a strong need exists for skill standards in the wood industry and indicated that some of the critical next steps are:

  • Designing a skill standards model specific to the wood manufacturing industry;
  • Taking into account relevant components of existing work on foundation skills;
  • Investigating the concept of a leveled skill standards model and ensuring sufficient technical skills are identified and included; and
  • Securing broad support and participation from wood industry associations and identifying appropriate champions to support the initiative.

Additionally, informal and formal discussions or presentations of the project were held during the 2004 International Woodworking & Machinery Supply Fair, the 2005 Wood Industry Conference and the 2005 AWFS Fair.

W&WP: Right now, the AWI is emphasizing that the goal of this project is "to assess the potential of skill standards, not for the development of the standards." Could you give us an idea of how you envision the project's future timeline? And, assuming the industry calls for the standards' development, when might they be completed and enforced?

Longwell: The next steps include a rigorous quantitative analysis of existing skill standards programs, holding a National Skill Standards Summit on Nov. 17 in Detroit to discuss results, development of the conceptual framework, identification of funding options and governance structure. These steps are expected to be completed by March 1, 2006.

I think it is worthwhile to point out that this project ends with the development of the conceptual framework, identification of the funding options, etc. I can't speculate on when skill standards might be completed and enforced. This project is to see if skill standards are needed and wanted, to see if there is agreement on the broad outlines of what should be contained in skill standards, to see if there is agreement on who should develop skill standards and how such an effort would be governed and, at least in rough terms, how much skill standards development and operation would cost. In a sense, this project could be thought of as a feasibility study. That's it.

W&WP: While the goal is to assess the need for and not actually develop these standards, one specific objective you list is to "develop a detailed conceptual framework for what should be contained" in the standards. Is it safe to assume that most - or a good portion - of the work to develop actual standards would be complete at the end of this project? If it is decided to create standards, how much more work would be involved, approximately?

Longwell: The conceptual framework is analogous to the skeleton of something - will it look like a fox or an elephant or will it be structured like overlapping pyramids or a deciduous tree?

The identification of how the standards will be operated and governed are the equivalent to the nervous system and how the standards will be funded for both development and operation are the circulatory system.

The "standards" themselves are the muscle or "meat on the bones." This specific skill and evaluation content will not be developed during this project.

W&WP: In some segments of the woodworking industry, it seems like employers recruit people who they think will be good workers, but who have little or no training in the woodworking field. On one hand, it seems like creating a national program that certifies woodworker skill would enhance woodworking as a career and help attract more young people into the field. On the other hand, it seems that the standards could discourage people from entering the field. Can you comment on these polar-opposite possibilities?

Longwell: The results of the survey indicate that respondent industry participants feel that the development of skill standards would greatly benefit both companies and their employees. More than 80 percent of the respondents felt that skill standards would help make job searches and initial training less stressful and more successful. Ninety-eight percent felt that employees would have a clearer understanding of performance expectations and 97 percent responded that skill standards would give employees a greater understanding of advancement potential.

W&WP: When the results are tallied, will you release the numerical data to the public or will you wait for a more official decision regarding whether the standards will or will not be developed?

Longwell: The tabular results will be available at standards/default.htm in late October. We want all interested parties to be involved, so we've developed a comment form to provide the opportunity for Wood & Wood Products' readers and others to provide additional comments on this stage of the project.

W&WP: Who will make the ultimate decision regarding whether the standards get developed? Are you looking for specific numbers from the survey to determine that or will the decision also entail qualitative discussion and financial reasoning?

Longwell: My company, D. J. Case and Assoc., was hired to facilitate this project. We will report the results of the assessment to the industry. Ultimately, the decision to proceed with the development of skill standards for the woodworking industry will be made by the industry. If they collectively decide that this is an effort that they desire to pursue, the results of this project will outline the next steps toward implementation.


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