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By Kj Hiramoto khiramoto@hickoryrecord.com Hickory Daily Record
Posted: Friday, February 26, 2016 12:00 am | Updated: 9:32 am, Sun Feb 28, 2016. 

HICKORY – Lexington Home Brands human resource manager Bill McBrayer has seen the employment numbers of his furniture plant dwindle over the last decade.

“We’re losing people,” McBrayer said. “As they age out, there’s nobody coming behind them to take over.”

McBrayer said when he first came into Lexington Home Brands in 1994; the company had over 4,000 employees. Now they have about 350.

“We can’t hire enough people,” McBrayer said. “We’ve got to do something… This is an emergency situation.”

Lexington Home Brands is far from being the only furniture company in the Catawba County going through the same issue.

In 2001, all of the furniture and related product manufacturing companies in the county employed about 14,478 people, according to North Carolina Labor and Economic.

That number however, began decreasing steadily through 2005 and decreased again from 2007 to 2010, as companies began outsourcing wooden furniture jobs overseas. By 2010, the county employed about 8,121 people in the furniture industry – 6,357 fewer than in 2001.

But fast forward after 2010, the industry throughout the county has made a steady recovery in its employment figures. In 2015, employment went up to 9,205 workers, which marked a 773-person improvement over the previous year.

“Furniture industry is not dead by any stretch of imagination,” McBrayer said. “Our industry in this area is booming.”

As means of filling out the massive void in employment, local companies, organizations and schools have all rallied around Catawba Valley Community College’s Furniture Academy (CVFA) to bring and retain a younger generation of workers to the area.

CVFA, according to the program’s website, is a training program in the Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) that was designed by local furniture manufacturers to prepare students for skilled positions that are in high demand by one of the region's largest employers. Among its five industrial partners are Century Furniture, Lee Industries, Lexington Home Brands, Sherrill Furniture and Vanguard Furniture.

Since it started in Oct. 2014, CVCC students enrolled in the furniture academy have received hands-on training inside both the factories of the industrial partners and on campus.

McBrayer, who is also an elected member of the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges, brought up the successes of Newton-Conover High School’s football program as an example to illustrate the positive impacts of implementing a feeder program to CVFA.

“They have little kids and they start playing the sport and running the offense that the high school uses,” McBrayer said. “By the time they move up to the high school (varsity) levels, they know what to do and how to play. That’s how they win state championships.”

McBrayer said 59 students so far have taken the program and all of them not only graduated, but are now employed in the furniture industry.

CVCC President Garrett Hinshaw said the program has grown to a point where CVFA now has a waitlist for its applicants.

“When you have a 100 percent graduation rate on any program, you can designate it as a great success,” Hinshaw said.

To keep up with the CVFA’s growth, CVCC is seeking approval and funds from the city of Newton to build a 38,000 square foot facility in the area.

McBrayer attributed the early successes of the program to younger adults wanting a higher paying job without having to go through the burden of graduating with heavy debt from attending a four-year university.

He also said that while the path to graduating CVFA isn't an easy road, it’s an invaluable tool in getting the students prepared in the fast-growing industry.

McBrayer remembered how those series of exodus devastated the cities of Lenoir, Thomasville and Hickory.

“You can’t acquire these (manufacturing) skills overnight,” McBrayer said. “You can’t acquire that just by going through this program, but it’s the perfect set of tools to get anybody started.”

Josh Cook, 19, is among the students taking that path. After realizing that traditional four-year university path wasn’t right for him, he enrolled in CVFA to specialize in cutting fabric.

He admits the days are long, as he starts his mornings over at Sherrill Furniture – one of the partner sites of CVFA – at 6:30 a.m., works there until 3 p.m. and then heads straight to class at CVFA, which ends around 6:30 p.m. Despite the grueling schedule, he says he has embraced the challenge and the experience he has gained.

“No one is going to get it for you,” Cook said. “You have to go out there and work for it and earn each paycheck. It’s great… You can’t ask for more than that.”

Asencion Ramirez, 45, took a long road before finding his niche with the academy. An immigrant from Mexico at age 18, he moved between temporary positions and on-the-job training for various employment agencies before hearing about the CVFA from his friends.

McBrayer said he was impressed with Ramirez's drive for wanting to be involved with the furniture industry.

“When Asencion first reached out to me, I didn’t have a position to offer him,” McBrayer said. “But he was so enthusiastic and kept calling me, so I had no choice but to find him a temporary position (at Lexington Home Brands)… Now he’s with the furniture academy, so he can make more money than his (former) job of sanding the furniture.”

Catawba County Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Lindsay Keisler said one of the major challenges local businesses face in bringing in workers is fighting the stigma of attending community colleges or manufacture skill academies.

Keisler recalled a time where she overheard a mother speaking under her breath in response to a suggestion of sending her daughter to an apprenticeship program.

“She said (to her daughter) ‘you can do better than that,’” Keisler said. “That’s the problem we’re facing. Many parents are not understanding that these (training programs) are making way for not only jobs, but they are careers.”

Hickory Public Schools is taking various steps to educate its students and their parents – with some programs reaching out to levels as early as elementary education — on the opportunities that training programs like CVFA can provide for them. Hickory Public School’s Director of Federal Programs Timothy Sims said communicating with the parents is the key to shaping the perception of the community college stigma.

“Our (approach) is really getting the word out on what the new jobs are open and what it takes to get there,” Sims said. “CVCC has been amazing at creating programs to get those needs.“

With programs like Extreme STEM Tour and Education Matters providing with intimate levels of access to local businesses, HPS Public Information Officer Beverly Snowden said “career workshops” for today’s students are much better than what it used to be.

“It’s so much more engaging,” Snowden said. “It gets the kids up and participating in these activities. It’s not strictly just PowerPoint presentations anymore.”

Snowden also said the improvements in getting students more enthusiastic about pursuing careers in the STEM field or manufacturing will help fade the stigma of attending community colleges.

Sims said while the school district does not intend to impose limits on its students into working only within the community, he said the biggest challenge is to push the students to be career and college ready.

“These schools aren’t all that different,” Sims said. “It’s more about preparing students overall and then letting them choose their path… We’re in the business of building dreams and helping kids realize their full potential, no matter what that is.”

McBrayer calls CVFA the “shining star” of the industry

“Having the furniture academy is a win-win for this community, region – this Unifour area,” McBrayer said. “It’s a win-win for the furniture industry as a whole because we are getting people jobs and changing peoples’ lives.”

Ramirez said if it weren’t for the furniture academy or the industry, he might have ended up working elsewhere like at a restaurant.

“That would have been less pay,” Ramirez said of his alternate career choice. “No benefits and I would have had no time to spend time with my kids on the weekends.”

Cook shrugged at the thought of where he would be today if it weren’t for CVFA.

“I don’t know,” Cook said with a laugh. “Glad my father introduced me to the program… We got great people and great teachers here. I like that I’m here and getting to do something I go to school and major for.”

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