Furniture apprenticeship pathway

Recognising that rapid obsolescence is an inevitable downside to the evolution of the knowledge-based economy, it is refreshing to see a renewed appreciation of the contribution made by trades to economic growth. To that end, Michael Smith investigates the pathway to a rewarding career in the furniture industry in this first part of a two-part story.

University students who graduated 30 years ago can count themselves among the fortunate ones, given the level of indebtedness racked up by the current crop of graduates – and the increasing lack of job security and career opportunities that has resulted from accelerated technical and scientific changes.

Conversely, many trades are now in high demand – due in no small part to the Christchurch rebuild and Auckland’s extraordinary growth. Vocational training is no longer seen as selling oneself short or as a last resort, and is increasingly recognised as a key to reducing youth unemployment.

Danske Møbler’s Auckland factory

Danske Møbler’s Auckland factory: a successful manufacturing/retailing firm that employs a range of apprentices. Photo: ©Danske Møbler

Positive response

The furniture industry may not be experiencing the same demand for apprentices as the construction and engineering sectors – following ongoing rationalisation to counter the effects of low-cost imports. But difficult times have produced a positive response from the industry, with a lift in the quality of – and subsequent appreciation for – New Zealand-made furniture.

There will always be a need for skilled craftspeople to manufacture, upholster and finish any one-off designed interior or fitment. And the transition to CNC machine centres for wood and panel machining has opened up the opportunity for a different set of skills that require intelligence and initiative.

Administration

The pathway to a furniture apprenticeship and qualification is administered by Competenz, a national qualifications co-ordinator and the training arm of the industry. A spokesperson for the organisation says there is no minimum qualification required to enter a furniture apprenticeship … “but we prefer students who have completed Year 12, and have preferably done furniture unit standards at school”.

“Our careers team works closely with schools to introduce students to job opportunities. This year we’ve expanded our Gateway programmes and visited over 200 schools nationwide to assist teachers and careers advisors on career pathways. We’ve provided students with opportunities to get excited about trade-based subjects, such as furniture making, through the Toolbox Challenge (www.toolboxchallenge.co.nz).

Competenz partners with a furniture sector advisory group (SAG) to ensure the needs of learners and employers are met. “We work consistently with the SAG to ensure industry training keeps up to date with international trends and meets the demands of the sector within the global market.”

Cabinetmakers at Otago Furniture

Cabinetmakers at Otago Furniture, Dunedin: a family owned business supplying quality furniture to the New Zealand retail and commercial markets. Photo: ©Otago Furniture

Qualifications

A furniture apprenticeship involves achieving levels 2, 3 and 4 qualifications in a particular trade area – cabinetmaking, upholstery and furniture finishing – and typically takes three years to complete. However, each level has a 12- or 18-month option, so the process can take longer depending on the wishes and circumstances of the employer and the apprentice.

The organisation’s five contracted assessors (three in the North Island and two in the South) hold trade qualifications and have extensive furniture industry experience. They are responsible for completing the documentation for new trainee and apprentice contracts, and designing and managing training plans.

Assessors will visit apprentices onsite at least four times a year to coach and mentor them, and to formally assess their unit standards – which are the basis of credits required to achieve qualifications. (It should be noted that each credit attracts a nominal administrative charge at the time of assessment – although some business owners will subsidise the process.)

The assessment is not necessarily a pass/fail process but an appraisal of knowledge and skills. If the unit standards are not achieved, the assessor will explain why and arrange another time to reassess.

Each unit standard has a study guide, which is given to the apprentice to complement on-the-job training. Guides are regularly reviewed and updated to ensure they keep pace with changes in technology and trade practice.

Business management skills

With a relatively low cost of entry, skilled tradesmen have often been keen to start out on their own – but have sometimes lacked the management skills that are at the core of every successful business. According to a Competenz spokeperson … “in 2015, 23.4% of the sector was self-employed. This is higher than the total economy’s self-employment rate of 16.6%.”

The organisation recognises the importance of business skills by teaching management units at levels 3 and 4. Advanced technical skills in furniture making are complemented by the knowledge needed to run an efficient and profitable manufacturing operation. That can include troubleshooting production issues, job costing, and the purchase of materials and hardware.

“Our training plans … focus on the broader business goals and facilitate on-the-job career development. In 2015 we launched our ‘enterprise-wide’ approach, which expands our facilitated learning programmes to cater for all aspects of business – from occupational health and safety to lean (competitive) manufacturing, business management and administration.”

Part two of this story will feature comment from employers on the apprenticeship pathway and what initial qualities and skills they look for when taking on an apprentice.

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