WCA President Scott Nelson reflects on challenges of past year
Avery High School woodworking program

Avery High School students work toward earning their Sawblade certificates.

NELLYSFORD, Va. -- 2020-21 will go down as a time many of us would like to forget but will always remember. It may not have been all bad, but it most certainly was not all good.

Scott Nelson, president of the Woodwork Career Alliance, rolled up his sleeves to field questions about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the non-profit organization and its core members. He also offered a glimpse of WCA programs and activities moving forward.

Scott Nelson WCA president
Scott Nelson, president, Woodwork Career Alliance of North America

Rich Christianson: How has the WCA managed to keep things together in the face of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic?

Scott Nelson: It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. There was a lot of uncertainty because we didn’t know how severe Covid would get and how long the pandemic would last. I was concerned about what was going to happen for the 2020-21 school year and how many of our EDUcation members might not renew. Fortunately, our renewals were very strong. We even added some new schools giving us a slight net gain for the year.

To get a better handle on how our EDUcation members’ woodworking programs were doing, we conducted a pair of surveys. The first one was done in Spring 2020 right after the pandemic began. Then, we conducted a follow-up survey in the Fall. That second survey was especially revealing. We learned that nearly one-fifth of our member schools were closed, meaning students were being taught woodworking solely online. About 30 percent of the schools were in a hybrid model in which students alternated on different days between taking classes in-person and remote. Even schools that were fully open still had to limit how many students could be in the woodshop.

In preparation for the 2020-21 school year, we beefed up our online resource library exclusively available to our EDUcation and MANufacturing members. I particularly want to thank Patrick Molzahn of Madison College for creating dozens of new machinery videos and also added related lesson plans and instructor notes to the library. Based on the log-in activity, we know that a lot more teachers took advantage of these materials than in past years.

Right now, I’m extremely busy processing and sending out Sawblade Certificates for qualifying students. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of our programs were able to certify students for their Sawblade Certificates especially considering that many of them had limited opportunities to be in the shop. I applaud the teachers and students for rising to the challenge.

Christianson: Have there been any silver linings in this era of Covid?

Nelson: I would say that the best thing that came out of this challenging year is that we created a totally online training platform for our accredited skill evaluators. That has turned out to be very successful. The training can be done at the teachers’ leisure and it has a much more in-depth training component to it with one-on-one sessions between the lead instructor and the teacher.

So far, we’ve certified about 10 of more than instructors enrolled from 13 states for online ASE training. These teachers will be able to evaluate and test their students for their Sawblade Certificates. So, that has great potential to grow that program. All in all, I really feel good about it. I think that those who are getting their certification through the online program are excellent. I feel confident that they will be able to evaluate and register students correctly.

Christianson: That’s great news, but I imagine there’s been some downside. In what area has the WCA most struggled?

Richard Memory, left, and Chuck Buck pose with Memory’s Gold credential project.

Nelson: We had some really good momentum heading into the pandemic. If I had to point to one thing, I’d say Covid slowed us down in the visibility department. Not having a live IWF last summer hurt. We always get a lot of traffic and the industry’s awareness of who we are and what we do always perks up because of the shows. We did do the virtual IWF Connect and AWI convention, but people don’t come looking for what they don’t know about so consequently our traffic was a fraction of what we are used to. Plus, I missed face-to-face conversations. It really hurt not being able to get our message out at shows, especially to our outreach efforts to wood product manufacturers.

Christianson: Sounds like your ready to get back at it in Las Vegas for the AWFS Fair.

Nelson: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to the AWFS Fair. I think everybody is, both on the supply and machine side and the wood manufacturing side. With the vaccine getting widespread usage, I feel it will be a good show. I think everyone who attends will do so with a purpose and I’m sure there will be a lot of new products to see since the 2019 AWFS Fair.

I’m excited about talking to people about what’s new with the WCA, including the online ASE training. Bruce Spitz (a WCA board member) and I will conduct a workforce development workshop. The program is geared toward helping companies pull together some of the essentials for starting or improving their own training program. Our goal is to help attendees develop a training template unique to their business to take back to their shops to flush out and implement.

We’re also partnering with Mimbus again. They’re bringing the SimSpray virtual reality device for training spray finishing. It’s a great magnet for drawing people into our booth.

Christianson: Now that we appear to be coming out of the pandemic are you seeing a surge of activity?

Richard Memory, left, and Chuck Buck pose with Memory’s Gold credential project.

Nelson: would say so. I’m definitely seeing a surge of teachers certifying students for their Sawblade Certificates who were unable to do so last year. Because their students were not in class, they couldn’t do the machinery evaluations.

We are also seeing some schools signing up in April, which is not totally unusual but is still a good sign that they are getting back in business and plan to be even more operational in the fall. I think we’re signing on new schools not only to utilize the WCA’s resources but also because the pendulum is swinging back toward the trades. More people are finding out that there are good career opportunities that you can get without going tremendously into debt at a four-year college. Consequently, more high school and postsecondary schools with woodworking programs are seeing the need to offer national certification based on the industry’s best practices and needs.

Christianson: You’ve made several references to growth in school woodworking program membership, what about industry participation?

Nelson: Thanks in large part to financial support from our Gold and Silver sponsors, I think we’ve made good progress in making more wood product manufacturers aware of us through our press releases, plus participation at industry events and word of mouth. We’re adding new manufacturing members, but we have a long way to go. The reality is that we’re a small, non-profit organization with limited funds and really count on the work of dedicated volunteers to make things happen. We have a lot of ideas for new programs but have to stay focused and make priorities. The new online ASE training is a perfect example of that.

I’d love to see more companies step up to the plate like Jefferson Millwork has. They recently helped Richard Memory, one of their employees, be awarded the industry’s first WCA Gold credential. Jefferson has taken the initiative and demonstrated how a company can create a career path and opportunities for an employee to move up the ladder by tying training and incentives to motivate that person to learn and grow their skills.

We’re always looking for new ways to become more relevant to wood manufacturers. That’s why I’m excited that we’re partnering with Woodworking Network on a new workforce development survey. We all know that finding and keeping good employees is an immense challenge for the woodworking industry. We’re hoping the survey will help us identify some potential solutions and provide us guidance for developing new programs.

Christianson: Anything you would like to add?

Nelson: I’m just really looking forward to putting Covid in the rearview mirror and getting back to a little more normalcy.

Learn more about the Woodwork Career Alliance.


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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.