New research sheds light on woodworking industry's workforce struggles
November 11, 2021 | 3:51 pm CST
Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

A new study of the U.S. and Canadian woodworking industry conducted by Woodworking Network and the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America reveals that the production worker shortage continues to increase at an alarming rate with no clear end in sight.

Nearly three-quarters (73.8%) of the woodworking representatives participating in the survey indicated it is “very challenging” to hire qualified workers for their manufacturing operations. Making matters even more disconcerting is that 57.9% said it has been “much more challenging” to hire now than three years ago. What’s more, 32.1% said they expect it to be “very challenging” to hire three years from now, with an additional 34% indicating they expect hiring to be somewhat challenging. 

Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

The need to hire qualified workers is made all the more necessary by high turnover rates on manufacturing floors. During 2020, 39.3% of the respondents said their operations lost at least one-quarter of their production workforce, including 4.7% who experienced a turnover rate of more than 75%. Conversely, 19.6% said they did not lose any workers in 2020.

Comments made by many of the survey participants highlight their frustration.

  • “No one wants to work.”
  • “We can’t find people with any experience, and when we do hire someone that we are willing to train, they leave after a couple of weeks.”
  • “We are not able to hire qualified operators without stealing them from others. We need to train younger people for those positions.”
  • “To find an employee with actual experience in our industry is rare.”
  • “Applicants with no appropriate skills want more than a beginning wage.”
    Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

     

  • “Even with paid ads, there are no candidates for consideration presently and for the past 12 months.”
  • “We have hired seven men since October 2020. Not one of them has worked out.”
  • “People apply and do not follow up, or they set up and interview and then don’t show up. Very frustrating.”
  • “Three years ago things were tough. Now it’s impossible. I’m not sure how much longer this business can continue.”
  • “We used to get 30 replies to an ad, now we’re lucky if we get three.”
  • “We just need people who want to work and can handle the day-to-day operations it isn’t the qualified part per se it is the drive to come to work and stay in a good position.”
  • “In spite of offering one of the best compensation packages in our area, we continue to increasingly struggle with attracting qualified production team members. It appears that more high school graduates are heading to non-production jobs.”
  • “Most new hires leave in the first 2 weeks. No one stayed more than six weeks.”
  • We had a 40% turnover last year. As a 60-year-old company with several 30- to 40-year vets, this was staggering.”
  • “We have a core group that has been with the company for years. It is trying to add to that group which is so hard.”
Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the industry’s struggles to hire and retain qualified production workers. Nearly two-thirds (65.4%) said COVID-19 had a “significant impact” on their ability to hire qualified production workers. Another 25.2% said they were “unsure” of COVID-19’s impact. Only 9.4% said COVID-19 had no significant impact on hiring personnel.

Many of those in the “significant impact” camp cited government unemployment programs as a major contributor to a dearth of job candidates.

  • “The resulting federal/state unemployment assistance has significantly impacted our ability to get people to walk in the door or call about employment. Any concerns about the spread of the variants have been minimal.”
  • “The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (which provided $600 a week on top of state unemployment benefits) has caused a significant reduction in the amount of people contacting us or responding to our multiple ads.”
  • Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study
    “The current situation is that folks are staying home and getting paid by the government under the COVID-19 unemployment guidelines. The government needs to get out of the way! Minimum wage hikes are a job killer for most manufacturing companies.”

Skills gap saps the bottom line
The ongoing struggle to hire and retain qualified workers to fully man the shop floor has crimped the revenue potential of the vast majority of companies represented in the survey.

Fully 35.6% of the respondents said that their failure to achieve full, stable employment has had a huge impact on their ability to increase revenues. An additional 38.4% indicated that staffing issues have curtailed their revenue potential.

  • Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study
    “We are busier than ever with increasing sales, but we could take on even more work if we could find the manpower to support it. Right now, everyone is ‘stealing’ help from their competitors which is driving wages up. We need new blood.”
  • “We are stuck at a number that can’t be exceeded without some talent.”
  • “Right now, we’re keeping up, but as backorders increase, we could potentially be turning down orders.”
  • “This is our number one problem.”
  • “We are losing customers due to delivery extended times, and are having to raise prices to offset compensation and incentive programs to attract and retain workers.”

Major hiring hurdles
So, why can’t woodworking companies find enough good help?

Asked to choose the single “biggest obstacle to hire new talent” from a list, 29.9% selected “low entry-level wages compared to other skilled trades,” closely followed by 28.0% choosing “declining number of high school woodworking programs.” “Lack of visibility/understanding of woodworking career opportunities” garnered 16.8% of the responses, followed by “low unemployment in your area,” 6.5%. Fewer than 1% chose “negative public image of the woodworking industry.”

Nearly 17% of the survey participants went beyond the list by providing a write-in response, with “all of the above” being a common refrain. Several also pointed to competition with government unemployment compensation programs.

What help is wanted?
The survey asked participants to identify the types of skill sets they are looking for in new hires. Numbers add up to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Candidates with “some experience to set up and operate traditional woodworking equipment (table saw, jointer, etc.)” are most in-demand, with 70.8% of respondents saying they need people with those types of basic machinery skills. Conversely, 42.5% of the respondents have job openings that require no previous woodworking experience. CNC operators and finishers are equally in demand at 39.6% followed by CAD-CAM users, 30.2%.

“The above positions are all required in any professional cabinet shop that expects to grow and be a successful operation. Under the current conditions in the USA, I think the opportunities for success in this environment are bleak for a developing business owner. Change is needed at the parent-child level as well as across the board at school systems and media. Unless skilled trades are once again respected there will continue to be a decline in the availability of workers in the skilled trades.”

“We have given up hiring for specific machines like moulders. Now we hire machine operators and train them for the specifics once they are here.”

“We would take any willing learner.”

“Hiring people who show up to work five days a week would be 100% win.”

Training programs in need
While the vast majority of survey respondents lament that they cannot find qualified production workers, more than two-fifths (40.4%) of them admit their operations do not have any formal woodworking training program. By and far, the most common method used to train employees is some form of one-on-one mentorship.

Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

The vast majority (86.9%) of respondents said they cross-train employees. As one respondent succinctly put it, “We would be sunk without this.”

Training employees to assemble, 79.8%, is by far the most common denominator in the cross-training arena. Also high on the list are bench person, 65.1%; edgebander, 60.5%; panel saw, 54.7%; CNC router, 51.2%; and finishing, 41.9%

WCA ready to help
The final section of the survey focused on the types of programs and delivery methods the Woodwork Career Alliance might develop to help the woodworking industry develop and grow a skilled workforce.

Woodworking Network and Woodwork Career Alliance Workforce Study

For example, precisely half of the respondents said they would be interested in programs designed to teach production employees fundamental woodworking skills, i.e. basic layout and measuring; wood moisture content; solid wood and panel properties and characteristics?

Other areas of interest for training program development include:

  • Teaching production employees basic set-up and operation of classical woodworking equipment, i.e. table saw, jointer, shaper – 36.4%.
  • Teaching production employees CNC operations – 35.2%.
  • Teaching finishing line operators – 35.2%.

In all cases, videos are by far the number one vehicle of choice for delivering training. Also high on the list are training manuals and webinars.

Roughly one-quarter of the respondents said they would like to see training resources offered in Spanish.

Learn more about the Woodwork Career Alliance and its credential programs at woodworkcareer.org.

 

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About the author
Rich Christianson | President/Owner/C-Level

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the industrial woodworking sector. Rich is the former long-time editorial director and associate publisher of Woodworking Network. During his nearly 35-year career, Rich has toured more than 250 woodworking operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia and has written extensively on woodworking technology, design and supply trends. He has also directed and promoted dozens of woodworking trade shows, conferences and seminars including the Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and the Woodworking Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo, Canada’s largest woodworking show.