Furniture apprenticeships: the employers’ perspective

A genuine desire to learn and work is a basic but critical starting point for any prospective apprentice seeking employment in the furniture industry, as Michael Smith reports.

Roye Haugh, manager of Dunedin-based Otago Furniture, looks for certain initial qualities when taking on an apprentice.“We want to see some evidence of ‘stickability’, manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination – and the ability to talk about what they are seeing and doing.

Central Joinery Limited

CNC machining plant at © Central Joinery Limited, Auckland

“Currently, we have three great apprentices, each with their own strengths and personalities. One is involved in cabinetmaking, concentrating on machining work; another works in the assembly side of cabinetmaking, but he has done some machinery units too. They swap from time to time, enabling them to learn more skills. And the third is a very promising upholstery apprentice.”

Kevin Lowe, Woodwork Finishing Manager at Danske Møbler in Auckland, says the company is interested in people who have mathematical ability, reading and writing skills, and who are honest, reliable and confident. He adds that some trade experience or woodworking interest is also useful. And given that apprenticeships take three to four years to complete, a stable home environment can serve an apprentice well.

Shaun Simpson, General Manager of Central Joinery Limited in East Tamaki, emphasises “reliability, a willingness to learn, and a bit of care and pride in their work. We can’t teach these things but we can teach the rest.”

John Abraham, a Competenz-contracted furniture apprenticeship assessor, says that, “in general, it is the creative skill that leads people into the trades. People who achieve satisfaction by creating something with their hands.” Allied to that can be other drivers like family tradition, employment opportunity and adult retraining options (given that no age limit is placed on taking up an apprenticeship).

Abraham is often pleasantly surprised at the quality of apprenticeship candidates. “I’ve had some young men who tried university for a year and it didn’t work out for them, so they took a furniture apprenticeship. They turned out to be excellent craftsmen with a bright future in the industry.”

And he notes that his assessing of cabinetmakers, upholsterers and finishers within the furniture apprenticeship system encompasses a wide range of ‘trades’ and employment opportunities – from kitchen manufacturers, shop fitters and production/bespoke furniture makers to new/recover upholstery, antique restoration and recycled furniture production.

Central Joinery Limited

CNC operator – © Central Joinery Ltd

On the lookout

Employers are always looking for suitable apprentices, usually via newspaper advertisements or their own websites. Vaughan King, owner/manager of Kingwood Furniture in Hamilton, says the company takes pride in developing and training its staff, and is always willing to consider CV submissions from people “interested in forging a career in the furniture and solid wood manufacturing industry”.

Haugh says Otago Furniture also relies on advertising, but “sometimes we take on people who come door knocking. Many of them turn out to be well-motivated self-starters who become good tradespeople. Occasionally we recruit from a school’s Gateway programme.”

Most business owners recognise the need to train new people for the furniture industry’s future viability. To that end, there is some concern that the industry is hampered by a lack of promotional material in schools and employment agencies compared with the building trades. Simpson says he struggles to find keen people through schools and training courses. “School-leavers who excel at woodwork are the ones the industry needs.”

With that in mind, Competenz has expanded its Gateway programmes and its ‘facilitated learning’ with training partners, including a comprehensive approach to occupational health and safety.

Bouquets and brickbats

Otago Furniture

Cabinet assembly – © Central Joinery Limited

Haugh says the teaching units developed for furniture-making apprentices “encompass a broad spectrum of skills, although some of the upholstery units rely on older teaching versions. These are being updated by Competenz as an ongoing project.”

She says that for some apprentices the time frames for completing the units can be a hassle – “especially when the work going through the factory does not require the skills an apprentice is tasked with mastering”.

Lowe says his trainees also have problems with the bookwork for upholstery. “It’s very inconsistent and some of it is quite difficult to understand. Even many of our qualified tradespeople don’t know what is being referred to.”

He is, nevertheless, happy with the finishing/polishing units, which cover a wide range of knowledge and learning. Likewise, the theory and practice of cabinetmaking, which encompass many aspects of the firm’s production requirements.

Central Joinery Limited

MDF board awaiting CNC processing at © Central Joinery Ltd

Haugh adds that apprentices could benefit from mixing with other experienced teachers outside the factory and with other apprentices in the industry. “I remember the ‘glow’ and renewed enthusiasm from apprentices returning from block courses years ago, and their increased self-confidence. Lifelong acquaintances in the industry were made on those courses, which proved worthwhile for those setting up their own businesses years later.

“A similar excitement was engendered when it was possible to run a competition for all furniture-making apprentices for the best designed and made piece of furniture. Unfortunately funding for such events is now scarce.”

Otago Furniture apprentices

Dunedin-based Otago Furniture currently employs three apprentices and, on average, takes on three more each year – in machining, assembly/cabinetmaking and upholstery. Photo: ©Otago Furniture

Technology and craftsmanship

Lowe says the industry is becoming increasingly automated and this is reflected in the people entering the trade – young trainees with a background in computers. “However, there are many aspects of cabinetmaking – especially in solid wood furniture – which cannot be done on CNC machines, allowing for individual expression and craftsmanship.”

Haugh says Otago Furniture’s manufacturing is “mostly based on standard procedures, with product cut out and bored on a CNC machine. But staff still need to think outside the square and that is where individual skill really proves its worth. We still make use of many of the older, hands-on machines – such as spindle moulders – where care and attention is needed so they don’t become ‘hands-off’ machines!

“Skills are called for in the assembly and fitting areas, and they only come with practice. And our finishing systems rely on people with good hand-eye coordination, an eye for detail and a well-developed perception of colour.”

She would like to explore ways of “allowing/encouraging our apprentices to learn CAD skills and CNC operating skills or the industry will be in danger of becoming reliant on programs and methodology ‘supplied with the machine’. If we cannot do anything different from, and better than, the imported product it will be hard for the industry to survive in New Zealand.”


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