Okay friends, let’s put all our cards on the table. Because I really want to talk about what’s happening with upholstery education in the U.S. Or rather, what’s NOT happening.
Whenever discussions ramp up around professional training, they inevitably circle back to trade schools and degree programs. It’s a logical starting point, the way we used to do things. And in Minnesota, we’ve waited with baited breath for programs to come back. In over a decade and a half, they haven’t. And nationally, other programs like ours have steadily but surely closed their doors.
What’s going on here??? Most shops we talk to are busy – isn’t there work??? Can we bring these programs back???? Who are the villains who took our education away??? These questions have consumed my thoughts. They circle back on themselves, again and again, leading to even more questions, and precious few answers. Our industry feels the loss of degree programs profoundly, almost universally. It feels like a final, ominous blow, proof that our beloved craft is, indeed, dying. But chin up now, because let me convince you in the weeks ahead: we’re not. In order to understand where these programs went and why we aren’t (necessarily) doomed without them, it helps to take a closer look at how they worked. For that, I sat down with my dear friend and mentor, Steve Cone.
As a young man in Minnesota, Steve went through a traditional, formal upholstery degree program, and then completed a two year apprenticeship to receive his journeyman’s card. (Here, by traditional, I mean “traditionally structured” not specifically traditional methods)
For years, he owned a much respected shop in St. Paul. He was the creator and lead instructor of the upholstery degree program at Century College, which closed it’s doors in 2000. It was the last formal upholstery program in Minnesota. At its core, it was 18 months of primarily hands-on skills training (there were also some business and theory credits) Students worked through a series of projects designed to build a relatively “complete” skill set. The curriculum was supported by packets, handouts and charts to guide students along. Steve would make 2-3 loops in the course of a class to check in with each student on their progress, and to offer assistance and correction as needed. All in all, the program was 2,000 hours.
The school kept a large file of potential client projects in order to ensure that students had furniture that fit their skill requirements. Labor was free, but clients had to purchase first quality fabric, so students were working with appropriate materials. In the event of a cutting error, additional fabric could be ordered.
After graduation, some candidates would go straight into self employment. For those who did not, Steve was well connected and respected in the upholstery community, so he was able to match candidates with potential job leads. A graduate of the program was not considered “fully baked” – the program set candidates up with basic skills, after which they’d hopefully find opportunities to increase speed, confidence and consistency outside of the classroom.
If, like Steve, a candidate were to continue into a traditional apprenticeship, that would be an additional 2 year relationship with one shop – if you left that shop, you had to start over. If you apprenticed without a degree, the requirement was 6,000 hours for a journeyman’s card.
Over the years, there was an overwhelming national shift in post-secondary education towards white collar training, tech, etc. Upholstery was phased out and computers were brought in. It was determined that the space could now accommodate twice as many students. The upholstery program was full to capacity at the time.
As you can imagine, this was heartbreaking for our community. . . The program that Steve created was exquisitely crafted, and it produced many excellent candidates.
So should we attempt to recreate it??? It’s an intoxicating fantasy, one that’s given us tunnel vision for many years. While we were waiting for it to come back, the only thing that happened was our industry became steadily weaker and more disconnected. The gap following that last class of students got bigger, and bigger.
And now, my friends, we’re in a pickle. Because our entire industry has shifted, and that was probably inevitable. But the candidates we should have with 5 years of training? With 10 years of training? They mostly aren’t there. Which means that we’re missing a really key piece of our industry pipeline. And we can’t recreate it overnight. Which is alarming with the number of professionals who are retiring. The need for education is greater than ever, but so are the barriers to providing it.
Let’s explore the Century College model . . . .
1. Carefully Constructed Curriculum
I think this is the most valuable, recognized (and perhaps salvageable) part of the traditional degree program. In the U.S., we have random education happening, and it IS possible to pull together a set of skills. But there’s no real rhyme or reason, no prepackaged, “learn these things in this sequence” I can think of lots of reasons why: Who is supposed to put that programming up? Who has the credibility? Who gets to say, “This is how we do it?” It used to be colleges, but if they’re out of the picture, who in the private market is responsible and qualified?
Let’s acknowledge that creating curriculum is a GIANT undertaking. Especially for something like reupholstery, where single new skills are often encased in long, time consuming projects, and no two pieces are alike. Let’s also acknowledge that most professional upholsterers are already burning a candle at both ends. And it isn’t just outlining a curriculum: It’s creating all the teaching materials to go with it, or at the very least, locating and assembling them. As we’ve discovered in our own teaching space, it’s very difficult pull together resources that match. If we have a student sewing a cushion, there may be videos and print resources out there, but if they teach the process differently, it can be confusing for newish students. So good curriculum is multi-pronged: it’s supported by hand outs or videos or other visual aids. It includes quantifiable benchmarks and an assessment. And of course, the best curriculum in the world is utterly useless if you can’t deliver it.
So you need to reach enough people, convince them that the curriculum is quality, get them on board, and find a way – in person or otherwise – to teach enough of them to offset all the creation and programming cost. That’s a tough row to hoe.
From a backstage perspective, I want to share some sobering numbers about our informal program: In 2017, we had almost 12,000 UNIQUE visitors to our website (28,000 total).
Of those 12,000, we saw perhaps 70-80 unique students in our St. Paul classes. From those students, we identified a scant handful that may have the right combination of talent, interest and life situation to maybe make a real go of it. From 12,000 . . . to about 5.
The funnel and effort required to keep our classes (mostly) full is astonishing. The second you start limiting and structuring classes into specific content, you divide your funnel into smaller groups. It becomes increasingly difficult to run programs that meet enough common interests, schedules and geography to fill. Beautifully, Steve’s program had sort of a “rolling” curriculum style. Students could jump in monthly and everyone ran through the skills on their own timeline.
That’s a thought worth putting a pin in. . . .
Part of the challenge is that we’re constantly working with a potpourri of candidates – every student joins us from a different point of entry. Some are brand, brand new. Many have a smattering of DIY upholstery under their belt. A few are actually working somewhere in the trade, or a related trade, and join us for a short while to refine or master a specific skill.
We try to meet individuals where they’re at, to the best of our abilities. Still, in spite of the considerable challenges, I’m not throwing this particular baby out with the bathwater. The idea of creating more structured curriculum, especially for our aspiring professionals . . . it bears further scrutiny.
2. Quantity of hours in one location
If you ask just about any upholsterer for their recipe on ” How to make a professional” the main ingredient will undoubtedly be hours. You need PRACTICE. And SO. MUCH. OF IT. It’s the single biggest barrier we face in the private market: We simply cannot replicate the number of in-house hours students used to receive. Not even for our local students, and ESPECIALLY not for the much larger pool of students who travel for hands-on education.
Steve had his students for TWO THOUSAND HOURS. With a solid curriculum and that many hours? Oh man, you could DEFINITELY create some quality candidates. But remember, now: after 2,000 hours, these graduates weren’t considered “done” exactly . . . They were prepared for the next stage of their journey. Which brings me to another point . . .
3. Industry structure
Here’s the thing with degree programs: They’re designed to prepare candidates for a job market.
The program at Century perhaps closed prematurely. But would it have closed eventually anyway? Personally, sadly, I’d bet yes. Whatever led to the closure of our particular program, this has been a sweeping national trend, and they can’t all be flukes. If there isn’t job placement, it’s difficult to justify a degree program. As manufacturing has left our states, and large shops have quietly disappeared, we’re left with a vast network of very small businesses. In fact, overwhelmingly sole proprietorships, cottage industries, side hustles and 1-2 person LLCs. Most businesses aren’t structured for semi-skilled labor: They’re doing a lot of custom one-off, and a freshly trained upholsterer is likely more of a hindrance than a help.
The industry of today is NOT prepared to absorb two dozen serious-but-new candidates in a single location. Is there a shop here and there who would like a post degree candidate? Absolutely! But you can’t create an entire program around the needs of a few scattered businesses.
One more thought on the issue, at the risk of hitting a nerve: Most shops who contact us, who ARE looking for the kind of candidate a degree program could produce . . . They aren’t really offering the kind of positions that a young, quality candidate is looking for long term. They need candidates with a lot of skills, a decent amount of experience, a good work ethic. . . But by the time a person HAS those skills, and IF they have that work ethic, shops very often can’t afford them, or are frustrated when they don’t stick around. This leads to much angst and hand wringing from everyone.
But really? I don’t think there’s a bad guy. It’s just hard to square the numbers. We have a huge, gaping, disconnect between the shop structures of yesterday, and the candidates of today. There is work out there. But they way we used to do business is increasingly impractical.
Which leads me to this conclusion: Our industry isn’t dying – our business models are. THIS is a problem we can work on. And we shouldn’t be too precious about it. . . . Every industry has had to adapt in order to survive. We still buy groceries, and clothing, and travel, and luxury items, and books and homes, and entertainment . . and we’re not always looking for the lowest price. But we don’t buy anything the way we did 50 years ago.
And here at last, the biggest question of all: Who is to foot the bill If you look at any model for upholstery education, I implore you to consider: how is it funded?? In the case of Century College, and degree programs in general, the massively expensive undertaking of providing students 2000 hours of hands-on education was largely subsidized by government funding. Obviously, students paid tuition, and fabric sales helped cover costs. Still. A degree program runs a huge tab, and somebody, somewhere has to pay it.
I think there’s some comfort when “somebody” is the government because it feels anonymous. But if government is going to write a check for education? They want to know where those candidates are planning to work. For those of you who do not know me in person, let me out myself now: I lean pretty far left.
But if you ask me, should the government pony up for professional level upholstery education? I’m sorry: My answer would be no. Not unless we can prove quality job placement, and a lot of it. Maybe someday we can. . . but not today.
I want to say something important about the program at Century: I want to say, it was incredible. By all accounts, according to every person I’ve spoken with. And the reason is Steve Cone. His reputation as a teacher, a mentor, a professional, an author . . . it proceeds him. He has affected the lives and careers of countless upholsterers across the country, including me.
So everything I say, I say with absolute respect, love and revere for the program he so brilliantly designed.
It was a thing of utter beauty. He created a program for professional upholstery education that was perfectly calculated to the needs and assets of the market around him. That should awe and inspire all of us. But decades have passed: Our industry has changed. EVERY industry has changed.
We don’t need solutions perfectly tailored to a bygone era: We need solutions of our own. We need to look at what’s happening NOW. And we need to design education that fits. And what is a modern upholsterer if not a professional problem solver? Come one, ladies and gentleman: We can FIX this. Because there IS work. And frankly, we’re missing a lot of it.
But possibly the worst thing we could do is keep beating the same dead horse. This may sound grim, but it’s not: If the market were really and truly gone? We’d be sunk. But business models can be changed. Education models can be changed . . . and in fact, they MUST be changed. With every year that passes, we have less and less energy to waste: Our quality professionals are already spread too thin. Please . . .let’s not continue to stare at closed doors. Expecting to survive with antiquated business models isn’t just unreasonable: It’s dangerous. Because right now, it’s the single biggest obstacle between us and the innovative solutions we actually need. . .
Banging our head against the dilemma of education has led us again and again to the changing reality of our industry. Programs could be put back, but can we? Professional education does not thrive in a vacuum: it exits in harmony with the framework of industry around it, and our framework is alarmingly sparse. So next year, we’ll be exploring curriculum development, but we’ll also be creating connections with our community, hoping to carefully reweave the gap between education and industry. It will be painstaking and messy. We’re having one conversation at a time. But we believe that this is our path forward: a community effort, a shared mission.
We cannot do it alone.
Update 2022: WOW, what a roller coaster we’ve been on, studying all this . . .
The past few years we’ve continued to connect and explore and try to understand – hurdles, opportunities, where we’ve been, where we could potentially go . . .
My feeling that early employment (or lack thereof) holds a critical key to the restoration of education has only increased in the time since I wrote this. If there aren’t viable points of career entry, what the heck good is training anyway?
I’m personally looking for ways to spend less time in the classroom, and more time talking to small businesses, particularly those who are interested in hiring.
Remember that part about “who foots the bill”?
Funding solutions for a 6,000 hour training target need to be collective. Part student, yes. . . Part employer? Part vendors who want to see businesses survive? Part government, to directly support small businesses trying to hire? Scholarships directly to students so they can afford structured training early in their career? A dollar in the field is worth ten in a classroom, if you ask me.
When we deeply considered how to deliver curriculum, there was no plausible way to lead with a hands-on model. Far too expensive and geographically limited for today’s market.
But what if we could put curriculum right into the field? Right into the hands of apprentices? Small business owners? Could we begin to mend the chasm between education and employment, by meeting the training to work?
Time will tell, But we’re darn sure excited about the possibilities.
To learn more, check out our new online training program, FLC Upholstery 200: Fundamentals