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Demand for US-made furniture the highest in decades, but also highlights need for skilled labor

furniture boom
Posted at 11:15 AM, Dec 17, 2021

HICKORY, N.C. — The current buzz of activity at Century Furniture is part of a double-edged reality the domestic furniture industry is currently grappling with.

"It's the best of times and it is the worst of times," said Guy Holbrook, vice president of sales and marketing at Century.

On one arm of the chair, if you will, western North Carolina, the self-proclaimed furniture capital of the world, is seeing an increase of demand the likes of which have not been seen since the 1980s and 1990s.

"We've seen 10 or 20 years. In a matter of 12 or 16 months. I mean, we've seen it from a complete drought of demand to a historical high," said Holbrook.

He said the new millennium marked a downward trajectory in domestic furniture. With cheaper pieces being imported from Asia beginning in 1999, demand for US-made furniture sank, factories shuttered, and the local economy took a beating it has not recovered from.

Now, with more people at home, paired with a strong housing market, Americans are nesting and buying more furniture. With supply chains making purchasing furniture from overseas difficult, domestic furniture brands are seeing record orders.

This new pandemic demand is certainly a welcomed sight to the region that still relies heavily on the industry, but on the other arm of that chair is the same supply chain crunch much of the world is trying to sort out.

"It has created an imbalance in our supply, and I think that's kind of where we're headed," said Holbrook.

Although all of Century’s furniture is made here, they rely on importing 15% of their components – think steel knobs and metal drawer tracks – which has created logistical obstacles.

However, the gaping hole between supply and demand they can’t seem to vault is the drought of skilled craftspeople.

"Labor currently is probably our biggest constraint that we're seeing. I mean, materials are the easy thing to point to, but we would hire probably 150 to 200 more people right now if we could find the right ones," said Holbrook.

With skilled crafts men and women retiring and not nearly enough following in their place, a solution has been established at the local community college.

In 2012, a group of furniture makers invested in the idea to train the next generation of skilled laborers, creating the Furniture Academy at Catawba Valley Community College.

"We didn't have a farm league. We didn't have anybody to come in and behind and work, so we said we need to have a place to where we could train and educate younger people to come in to the industry to take over when the older folks leave," said Bill McBrayer, a founding partner of the Furniture Academy.

In less than two years, students can learn a skill in the furniture making industry, including coil installation, frame assembly, and upholstery. When they graduate, they’re pretty much guaranteed a local job where they can make upwards of $70,000 a year.

"If you've got a need to reach out to your community college and partner with them and get their, their buy-in. And you can have a program of your own," said McBrayer.

Even with the furniture academy, as long as the lack of skilled workers remains, Holbrook believes the industry will be held back from a true resurgence. Even so, the spotlight the industry is getting paired with the effort to maintain it gives him and his colleagues hope for a better future.

"There are so many people that are welcoming in this community. If you have skilled labor, send us all you have. We welcome them with open arms," said Holbrook.