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Demand For Upholsterers Is Great. They Can Sew Up A Job In No Time


There's a growing bright spot in what's been a languishing industry. Since 2000, about half of U.S. furniture manufacturing jobs have disappeared, many of them going to China. But upholstery is on the rebound. Demand for these skilled workers is so high, a training program in North Carolina has reopened to teach workers a craft that's barely changed over the last century. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Lisa Worf reports.

LISA WORF, BYLINE: Wade Grigartis is putting the final touches on a small hot-pink ottoman. He wears a tool belt, protective glasses and wields a staple gun.

WADE GRIGARTIS: Yeah, I put the foam on it, put the fiber on it, upholstered it, put the border around it, the welt, the black bottom.

WORF: The 29-year-old used to work with what the industry calls case goods, wood and metal furniture that's now largely produced in China. He came here to Catawba Valley Community College's Furniture Academy in Hickory to learn upholstery.

GRIGARTIS: The furniture industry around this area is just - it's probably the best thing for job security around here. You know, if you can upholster, you'll have a job, you know, in just a matter of days. And that's hard to pass up.

WORF: A few months after starting the academy, Grigartis landed a job with Lee Industries. And if he completes the night course, he keeps the job and the company will reimburse his tuition. In return, the company gets a more highly-trained worker. Another student here, Asencion Ramirez, pulls, tucks and staples fabric after a day doing just that for Lexington Home Brands. When he completes the 10-month course, the company will reimburse him half the $600 cost.

ASENCION RAMIREZ: I was doing the restaurant business before, and you don't get benefits, you don't get vacations. So it's a lot more benefits, this career.

WORF: Experienced upholsterers make between 40 and $50,000 a year. If they're fast, they can make much more. And so the furniture academy has about 100 people on its waitlist.

Jerry Epperson runs an investment banking and research firm that specializes in furniture. He says most custom upholstering is done in the U.S..

JERRY EPPERSON: The domestic factories groups are doing one of two things - they're offering a lot of different features and a lot of different options, a lot of different covers. And the other thing they're offering is very rapid delivery.

WORF: The upholstery side of the furniture industry was holding its own until the 2008 recession. Business got so bad, the academy shut down. Demand has since bounced back, but an aging workforce and a younger generation reluctant to enter an industry known for layoffs has led to stiff competition for workers.

BILL MCBRAYER: What are you working on here? This is a sofa?

WORF: Bill McBrayer is in charge of HR at Lexington Home Brands and, on a tour of his factory, points out one of his veteran employees, an 83-year-old.

MCBRAYER: So when he walks out the door and says goodbye, who's going to replace him?

WORF: McBrayer and others in the industry approached the community college to reboot the furniture academy with a focus on upholstery. Cindy Fulbright now manages the program after 20 years of running furniture plants. She's seen how the academy has helped people.

CINDY FULBRIGHT: They come here hoping to better their lives. And 100 percent of our graduates have been able to do that.

WORF: Forty-four-year-old Sean Williams signed up looking for safer, more secure work than his previous job cutting sheet metal.

SEAN WILLIAMS: My first day there somebody lost a thumb. It was something all the time. So I just want to do this. I don't want to do that no more.

WORF: Vanguard Furniture has already snatched Williams up. And that's how it goes in a region looking to fill what experts estimate to be a couple thousand upholstery jobs over the next year. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Worf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.