#004 / 1997


Trades trailing?

In B.C. about 40 people a year earn joinery/benchwork (cabinetmaking) trade qualifications and 30+ students graduate from two fine woodworking programs (see sidebar for details). These programs are well subscribed despite the fact that cabinetmaking is the lowest paid of all the "trades" with an average salary of $12 to $18 per hour (1992).

A large proportion of this yearly influx of 70+ furniture makers (probably closer to 100 if in-migration and design graduates are included) will replace retiring workers in the "service sector" of manufacturing: smaller companies that produce "to-order" millwork, built-in cabinets, furniture and store/restaurant interiors. Cabinetmakers who establish manufacturing ventures tend to specialize in custom or "art" furniture that can be produced with minimal equipment and the financial assistance of the purchaser.

The reasons why custom cabinetmakers do not progress into "furniture manufacturers" need to be addressed if we are serious about job creation through increased value-created manufacturing. The most important reason is the short duration of most training programs and their emphasis on the traditional hand/power tool (i.e., low-cost) technology of the custom woodworking sector. These programs have little time or resources to cover new technologies, marketing, design management, production methods, etc., all essential elements of programs supported by other manufacturing-dependent nations. A three-year program to serve the needs of the B.C. economy would offer the following curriculum:

design foundation (year 1)

Basic principles of form, colour, drawing, history, science, math, construction methods, computer software, design, CAD, etc.

furniture foundation (year 2)

Introduction to furniture production using basic hand and power tools.

production and marketing (year 3)

Introduction to computer-aided machining technologies for "moderate" production levels. Courses in marketing, business management and related computer software.

The first two years of the program could be accommodated in existing community colleges. The third year could be offered by a new facility funded by amalgamating the budgets and resources of existing post-secondary programs presently functioning in isolation.

In response to these proposals Cam Russell (fine woodworking instructor at Camosun College) commented, "I would love to get students who had done a year of arts foundation. In fact some of the most successful graduates I've had (including commercially after the course) have been graduates of the two-year arts programs at Capilano and Camosun colleges. It would also be ideal from the point of view of my graduating class to head off into the realm of CNC, etc."

With a well-trained workforce in place, government policies could be directed at providing the infrastructure vital for our re-emerging manufacturing sector, access to quality raw materials, new technology, inventory financing and industrial incubators.

Trades training must move on from its custom woodworking heritage and provide the skills needed for cabinetmakers to become the vanguard of a renewed and innovative B.C. furniture manufacturing sector.

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© furniturelink 1997 (text and images)