8-30-2021 – Furniture’s biggest obstacle is image

Posted on: August 30th, 2021 by admin


August 30, 2021



By Guy Lucas guylucas@newstopicnews.com

Aug 27, 2021


Business is booming for McCreary Modern, as it is for most other furniture companies, but it could be even better, the company’s president said.


The company could expand by at least 10%, maybe 20%, Rick Coffey said, if not for one giant obstacle: people.


Or, more specifically, the lack of people applying to fill all the jobs the company needs in order to meet the huge demand it is facing.


“I could hire 100 people tomorrow,” Coffey said. “Demand has never been higher.”


It’s a common refrain among the Hickory region’s furniture manufacturers, said Taylor Dellinger, a data analyst at the Western Piedmont Council of Governments.


While manufacturers nationwide have reported they need more workers than they can find, the problem is more acute for this region’s furniture makers, Dellinger said.


In spring 2020, the COVID-19-related business shutdowns in the U.S. and overseas caused the Hickory region to lose 7,800 of its 41,500 manufacturing jobs, he said. In June 2021, the region had regained all but about 1,000 of those jobs — but furniture by itself more than accounts for the entire shortfall.


The furniture industry had about 14,400 jobs in the region before the pandemic, and by June 2021 it was back to only about 13,000, Dellinger said.


Coffey said that officials at McCreary, as at other companies, have tried everything they can think of to try to lure more workers: The company offers $2,500 signing bonuses for skilled workers, $2,500 finder’s fees for any employee who recruits a skilled worker, $1,000 bonuses and finder’s fees for entry-level workers requiring training, generous and progressive benefits, an in-house pharmacy and nurse practitioners, and an unlimited company match of 25% of each employee’s 401(k) contributions, to name a few, as well as increased pay — even entry-level pay starts at $15 an hour.


The company also reaches out through any channel possible, including Twitter and Instagram, to publicize its job openings, pay and benefits.


And yet, despite all that, hiring people is the hardest Coffey has ever experienced in more than 40 years in the business. Even when the unemployment rate was around 3% it was easier to find workers.


Dellinger said the difficulty stems in part from the same things affecting other industries — a lack of child care options keeps some out of the workforce, and some remain fearful of COVID-19. Enhanced unemployment benefits have kept some workers at home, but it’s not a major factor for the industry, he said.


Demographics also is a factor: The portion of the region’s population that has the sought-after skills is aging, and many decided to retire after the Great Recession delivered the latest of a series of economic blows to the industry.


But a big factor is that many younger workers simply are reluctant to enter the furniture industry, in part because of its past waves of layoffs from moving jobs overseas and from recessions, and in part because many have heard older relatives talk negatively about factory work they experienced, Dellinger said. A large majority of the area’s high school students know someone who used to work in furniture, he said.


Coffey agreed the industry suffers from a perception problem among younger workers.


“There’s a bad perception this is the same furniture industry that left Caldwell County and Catawba County in the late ’80s and ’90s,” Coffey said. “It’s not your dad’s old company.”


The industry is highly automated now and offers a much improved work environment. Upholstery remains a very hands-on kind of work that is difficult to entirely automate, but in many ways furniture factoring today is not like what workers experienced 20 years ago, Coffey said.


Coffey’s company, like the others, has been hammering that message. So far, it isn’t breaking through to enough workers.

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