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Demand For Upholsterers Drives CVCC Furniture Academy

Lisa Worf
Student Waide Grigartis got an upholstery job a few months into the academy.

North Carolina’s once highly-acclaimed furniture industry is all but dead, if you believe conventional wisdom. That’s understandable. A lot of manufacturing has shut down and moved to China over the last 20 years.

But not all is lost, particularly in upholstery. In fact, demand for upholstery workers is so high in the Hickory area that Catawba Valley Community College reopened a training program and that program now has a large waiting list.

Waide Grigartis is putting the final touches on a small, hot pink ottoman. 

"I put the foam on it, the fiber on it, upholstered it, put the border around it, the welt, and the black bottom," says Grigartis.      

This piece combines everything he's learned over the past nine months at Catawba Valley's Furniture Academy. Here, students learn a craft that, for the most part, hasn't changed much over the last century. Around him, students make couch arms by applying padding. They pull, tuck, and staple fabric.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
A student puts together a couch arm. Lining up patterns like this can be especially tricky.

Grigartis left the wooden side of the business to enroll in the academy's upholstery course. Catawba Valley Community College closed the academy in 2008, but rebooted it two years ago to meet employer demand.

"The furniture industry around this area is probably the best thing for job security around here. If you can upholster, you'll have a job in just a matter of days and that's hard to pass up," says Grigartis.

Grigartis, like several of his classmates, didn't have to wait to complete the program. A few months after starting the academy, the 29 year-old landed an upholstery job with Lee Industries, one of the big custom upholsterers in the area.

"It's just a world, world, world of options that are open to you to make your own sofa the way you want," says Jerry Epperson, who helps run Mann, Armistead, and Epperson, an investment banking and research firm that specializes in furniture.

While most furniture is made overseas, most custom upholstery is made in the U.S. Asian manufacturers are good at mass-producing furniture, but it's not economical for them to do custom products that come with a quick turnaround. This side of the upholstery business was plugging along in the U.S., until the recession hit in 2008. The Hickory region's unemployment rate climbed to 15 percent. It's now just under 5 percent. 

"We lost a lot of our workers and we thought we could get them back. But, no, we're having a very difficult time and that's why we're seeing so many training programs within high schools, and community colleges, and tech facilities in North Carolina, Virginia, and Mississippi," says Epperson.     

One of the industry leaders to push for the furniture academy to re-open was Bill McBrayer with Lexington Home Brands. On a plant tour, he points out an 83 year-old employee. He worries about losing that expertise.   

"So when he walks out the door and says 'good-bye,' who's going to replace him? That's why we have the furniture academy," says McBrayer.    

An aging workforce and a younger generation reluctant to enter an industry known for layoffs led to stiff competition for workers. That forced local companies to sit down together and figure things out. 

"We said, 'We got to quit this rat race. We've got to train people,'" recounts McBrayer. "People don't go to family reunions and tell their granddaddy and uncle, 'I want to be an upholsterer.' They want to do something else." 

Two years after it opened Catawba Valley's Furniture Academy is expanding. A new facility in Newton means it will soon be able to accommodate 100 students.

On this night, new students at the academy learn about sewing fabric, as part of their introduction to the industry.  

"I've always treated sewing as kind of like a puzzle. When you got all these different little pieces and when they all come together, they'll end up being a finished product," explains instructor and sewing veteran Becky Stamey. 

Across the hallway, in a small-scale version of an upholstery plant, other students focus on their specialties. Instructor Vaughn Brown is helping a student tidy-up a piece. Brown has worked in upholstery for 27 years. He says it took three years for him to get good and fast.   

"Some people can draw really well and some people just can't. And that's kind of the way it is. It's just an art," says Brown.   

Cutting and sewing requires a lot of conceptual thinking. Applying and stretching the fabric into place is the most grueling. Workers are paid based on the amount they produce. Sewers make between $20,000 and $50,000 a year with benefits. Upholsterers can make up to $80,000.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Student Sean Williams trims an ottoman.

That sounds pretty good to Sean Williams who was recently laid off from a job cutting sheet metal.     

"My first day there, someone lost a thumb. It was something like that all the time. I just want to do this. I don't want to do that no more," says Williams.

He's about to complete his furniture academy course, but already has a job with Vanguard and likes it. He learns something new every day and, he's quick to point out, it's air conditioned.