How do you get the message across that there are great employment opportunities in millwork, cabinets, furniture and woodworking?

The best way is to show the workplace and its use of new technology. And to meet people who have had successful careers at companies that offer opportunities and advancement.

A recent event organized by industry, associations and education achieved that and more.

The idea for event was developed by Chris Hofmann, Woodworking Machinery Industry Association's Education Committee chairman and U.S. Lamello product manager for Colonial Saw. WMIA organized the event with the help of Skills for Rhode Island's Future, and Herrick & White, a Cumberland, Rhode Island, manufacturer of architectural millwork, which hosted the meeting and provided tours as well.

Initially, Hofmann wanted to develop a live trade show-type event.

“When I was appointed chair of the WMIA Education Committee, I had a vision for developing something like a condensed trade show environment that would involve vocational high school students, educators, hopefully parents, industry vendors, and all the while also be centered around an engaging tour of a contemporary, dynamic shop,” he said.

“We found a great partner in Herrick & White to launch this concept for our inaugural event and I couldn't be more pleased with the outcome. Feedback from the students and educators was terrific. By introducing the students to the shop environment, industry vendors, and post-secondary woodworking schools, we gave them a great cross-section of many available opportunities all in the span of about two hours per school.

Hofmann said there were five schools that participated, including 80 students. WMIA is in the planning stages for a similar event in Massachusetts for the spring of 2019. Once that second event is complete, he said they are going to work to create nationwide events multiple times per year.

Another participant, Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, is an organization that provides high school students with paid summer work-based internships. The program connects education with the workplace, allowing students to learn about a job they may want to pursue.

Students see the design, planning and fabrication process in Herrick & White's operation.

 

Changing perceptions

Ken Bertram, president of Herrick & White, said that he and Hofmann had earlier discussed the need to change the perception of the woodworking industry, which led to the open house concept at his architectural millwork company.

“We have been working with schools over the past several years, bringing in student interns for the purpose of bringing youth into the industry,” he said. “This was a great opportunity to capture many students at one event.”

Bertram said that people have the perception of the woodworking industry as a couple of guys in a garage covered in dust and missing some digits. This perception makes it more challenging to find employees.

Also, there is little emphasis on the trades in school.

“Primarily kids are guided towards college,” Bertram said. “The schools have had their vocational programs decimated by budget cuts so the kids that actually want to pursue a vocation don’t get the level of experience necessary or the building (of) enthusiasm for the trade. One of the goals of this event is to start to change the perception and make woodwork manufacturing an enticing opportunity for the future workforce.”

Bertram said that Herrick and White wanted to demonstrate that woodwork manufacturing reaches far beyond assembling a cabinet at a bench, and that there are career opportunities available, such as supervision, engineering, estimating, project management, accounting, sales and marketing. 

“We wanted them to understand that if they came in with drive and a great attitude they can enter a trade right out of school and then develop their career in a direction they choose,” he said.

Vendor displays were open for visiting students to ask questions and interact with suppliers.

 

Partnering with industry

Larry Hoffer, WMIA president and CEO, said that the asscoaition’s member companies are also involved in this effort.

“Many WMIA-member companies pursue different avenues to solve the skills shortage, such as partnering with local VAs to find employees and developing internships with schools in their area,” Hoffer said. “On the whole, WMIA is part of WIRC, the Wood Industry Resource Collaborative, a multi-association collaboration that is working to bridge the skills gap by changing the perception of the industry among the next generation, their parents, and school counselors.

“(At this event) the students had the chance to better understand the diversity of the woodworking industry, the different machines and software used and the philosophies behind them, and they had the opportunity to talk with professionals currently working in the industry, to see what career paths might be available to them and how they might pursue them.”

WMIA is working on another open house in early 2019. “It is our goal to hold at least four of these events next year, and eventually create a prototype that our members can utilize in their own communities by partnering with vendors and schools in their area,” Hoffer said.

Students see an architectural millwork shop in action.

 

View from education

One of the schools participating in the event was the Woonsocket Area Career and Tech Center. Charlie Myers teaches Architectural Construction Technology, and has been an instructor there for 21 years.

“We do not have any woodworking programs anywhere with the Woonsocket Education system at any age or level,” he said. “We will work on a woodworking project on an individual basis if a student would like to build a bookcase or shelf but the program was not recruiting enough students to keep it active.

“The wood shop classes in the middle schools have also been eliminated when the teachers retired. The wood shop class in the high school has also been chopped. There is no longer any exposure to any trades until a student goes on a tour in the ninth grade. It is difficult to demonstrate all of the possible career paths in construction in a seven-minute time limit.” 

Myers said he really enjoyed this event, and six students filled out an application to work there.

“This is a career that they had not considered before the tour,” he said. “I believe they finally saw a combination of skills and artistry in the projects being made there. They were also excited that two former graduates had worked their way from the entry level to an ownership level.

“I believe they saw a career where they can advance within a company and support themselves as adults. I think this is what they are looking for. A means to support themselves and their families as their skills improve....so will their income. I do not believe they have seen any examples of this in their employment so far and they were excited!”

Herrick & White's Ken Bertram, from left, Gary Rousseau, and Steve Brannigan greet visitors.

Shop tour

Herrick & White president Ken Bertram showed a video to each group and described the history of the company, which started in 1977 and makes high-end specialized architectural millwork.

The company has many highly skilled and experienced longtime employees, but Bertram said that 10 percent of the current workforce.

“We are committed to growing our own workforce,” he said.

Company representatives emphasized to students that there were great opportunities for growth and promotion within the company, and offered their own experiences of holding many different positions as examples.

Gary Rousseau, executive vice president of sales and marketing, outlined his experience from Woonsocket Vocational to Herrick & White, dating back to 1979. He ran the shop, purchasing, and sales and marketing. “They gave me confidence,” he said. “And every day is a new adventure.”

Steve Brannigan is executive vice president of finance and chief financial officer, and also has had a long career at the company with many different positions. He said it is about much more than woodworking. “I have done every position in this company,” he said. He believes students today have the same opportunity he did, and Herrick and White is dedicated to growing their own talent.

In the shop, students saw the engineering department and saw how project management was handled from planning to installation.

They looked at the process beginning with rough lumber, cutting and machining, and assembly and fabrication.

In the shop were a Holzma panel saw, Anderson Exxact CNC router, Brandt edgebander and SawStop table saws. Of special interest to students was a Weeke Optimat BHP 008 CNC machining center, demonstrating the technology used in wood products manufacturing today.

 

Vendor contact

A group of industry organizations and companies was also present at the event, and visiting students could meet and ask questions of any of the representatives.

In addition to WMIA, the Woodwork Career Alliance was present, along with Colonial Saw, Stiles Machinery, KCD Software, Weinig-Holz-Her, SawStop, Cabinet Vision and Atlantic Machinery.

Herrick & White actually received one application from a student the day of the event, and several more students said they would apply and many took applications with them.

“I expect we’ll pick up a couple of student interns in the short term,” said Ken Bertram. “I expect our summer intern program will have several more applications, and more students will pursue woodworking as a career choice then before the event.”

“This mission to expose the youth to the modern day woodwork manufacturing environment is imperative for the future of the industry.  Great job from Skills for Rhode Island’s Future and WMIA for pulling it all together!”

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.