It's either one of the best-kept secrets or the least-realized crisis in the woodworking industry in the United States. No, we’re not talking about the affect Big Foot has on profitable logging endeavors in the Northwest U.S.
Training and education associated with anything wood is more than under our radar; it’s not even visible using any means available by most of those people who call the educational shots in this country. Progressive vocational education here in the Land of Milk and Money is akin to the weight of navel lint respective to the cumulative body of the working sector.
The wood industry has undergone significant structural changes since 2000. The furniture industry has left the country along with the turning manufacturers, decorative window components, and most recently low cost kitchen cabinets. In turn these products are being imported in large volume to fill the void left.
The concept of “mass customization” seems to be taking hold here, but only, it seems, by the enlightened few who saw the opportunistic tunnel at the end of the light following “The Great Recession” of post-post 9/11.
Pressure on pricing has been significant. Job losses exceeding 200,000 skilled personnel have been noted by leading industry observers. Imports of lumber have increased for pine, European beech, and other non-native woods. The United States continues to export a significant amount of hardwood lumber without any value added. Some of this lumber returns in the form of furniture and other products whose raw ingredients were conceived, nurtured and harvested here in The World’s Biggest Market.
Housing and the dollar
Since 2006 the housing industry and its associated components have seen a 50 percent reduction in sales volume. Due to the economy and reduced demand for housing-related wood products, a number of companies discontinued business. A number of companies have consolidated plants and operations.
The dollar is still under-valued compared to the Chinese currency, not to mention the incredible amount of U.S. debt the Chinese own. Still, the supply chain lead-time is fairly long from China and other parts of Asia, with inconsistent product quality. As these products made in China rise in price, they are being shopped around the world seeking the lowest possible cost. So much for that constipated myopic Communist view of the world economy.
The cost of transportation to the United States continues to increase in cost with rising fuel prices. The “Green” or “Sustainability” movements are taking hold. These factors are influencing market forces that are creating interest in reestablishing woodworking in the U.S.
Technical Education at the secondary, and post-secondary school levels has been declining since the mid-1970’s. Not just woodworking but tooling, metalworking, printing, construction, HVAC, and others have been affected. The move by government, administrators, educators and parents to force more students to be college bound has been aggressive. The trades have been left to a second tier status. An industrial or technology-based student today is hard pressed to find a good technical college to enroll in after high school, although there are exceptions.
Equipment designers and manufactures are using higher levels of technology and computers to drive their equipment. The availability of service technicians to repair this equipment is declining. Skilled operators are limited in availability.
What is the impact on WoodLINKS?
Technical education needs to become a priority in the U.S. and share the stage equally with the college-bound prep programs. WoodLINKS USA can serve in the role as a facilitator in the technical education effort to raise awareness of the need for entry-level and above workers. WoodLINKS, as a facilitator, can provide educational tools to the teachers, structure to the wood education programs, and utilize industry in the education and technical training process.
Industry leaders must be engaged through greater contributions of time, equipment, and money to the regional and national programs. In addition, they should be charged with the task to develop a public relations program that gains public support for woodworking and technical education.
The prospects for the wood industry to be a significant and important growth industry increase everyday as market conditions shape this industry. A return to domestic manufacturing will happen, but when is anybody’s guess.
There are signs that limited products are returning to the market here and elsewhere. However product cost, government regulations, and transportation cost factors weigh heavily on any strategic initiative. The public has been schooled in cheap disposal goods and may be resistant to U.S. manufactured goods. In addition, the limited availability of skilled trades’ personnel will restrict the growth of this industry for more than ten years unless technical education programs are restarted soon.
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