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By KEN ELKINS, Charlotte Business Journal

After years of drifting and sometimes diving downward, furniture-manufacturing employment in the Hickory area is on the rise.

During the last five years, furniture companies in Catawba County have added about 1,100 jobs. That translates to about 2.5% a year from 2010 to 2015, according to numbers compiled by Nathan Huret, director of existing industry services at Catawba County Economic Development Corp.

It’s not exactly a boom but it’s important in an industry that 10 years ago was thought to be dying, even in the Hickory area, which many consider the furniture capital of the country.

In Catawba County, those additional 1,100 jobs represent about 20% of all the job growth in the county for those five years.

The growth in the furniture job market combined with an aging workforce in the plants has created a shortage of skilled workers for the local furniture manufacturers.

“We can’t hire enough people,” Bill McBrayer, human resource manager at Lexington Home Brands, told the Hickory Daily Record recently.

The five big Hickory-area furniture companies and Catawba Valley Community College realized in 2014 that a squeeze was coming for furniture employees. Together, they created the Furniture Academy on campus.

In classes on campus and in training on the factory floors, students are schooled in how to get and hold jobs in making furniture.

So far, 59 students have enrolled in the program. Some of those are still taking classes.

The results are impressive. The program has a 100% graduation rate and all 59 of those graduates or soon-to-be graduates either have found jobs or have promises of jobs.

“That’s what you dream about in a new program,” says Garrett Hinshaw, CVCC president.

The Furniture Academy’s partners in industry include Lexington Home Brands as well as Century Furniture, Lee Industries, Sherrill Furniture Co. Inc. and Vanguard Furniture Co. Inc.

Now, the CVCC needs more space for the Furniture Academy. Hinshaw is looking for about 30,000 square feet in a former manufacturing setting to house an expanded school.

“We needed the other location yesterday,” he says. “We’re basically out of space where we are now” on the CVCC campus.

The Catawba County Commission has committed to help pay for at least part of the $1 million to $2 million cost of the expansion.

Looking back, Hinshaw says Furniture Academy planners made the right choice to bring those five manufacturers in on the ground floor of the school.

“There is such a strong buy-in from the employers,” he says. Those five companies and others furniture makers “design and drive the program,” Hinshaw adds.


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