Ask a seasoned upholstery how long it took them to feel confidently professional, and they’ll usually say between 5-10 years.
For today, as a happy medium, we’ll say 7.
So we’ve been talking at great length about lack of upholstery education in the U.S. and the need to revive it.
But the question on my mind lately is . . . what then?
I don’t even know where to start. This circular conversation is going to give me a real life ulcer.
If it takes 7 years to BECOME experienced . . . where do candidates hang out until a shop comes looking?
In most areas, there is but one viable path: self-employment.
Upholstery takes practice and lots of it. With or without education, most serious candidates are getting that practice on their own, which leads organically to friends and family showing up as first generation clients.
If, in the process of gaining a skill set, you’ve inadvertently created a client base, why would you dump your fledgling business to work in someone else’s shop?
It’s like we can’t see candidates until they’re un-hireable.
So, we’ve created a cycle. What can we do?
A lot of well-intentioned shops have tried hiring completely inexperienced people, willing to train from scratch.
My dears. Bless you. I don’t have to tell you how that usually goes. (But I will)
In the first two years, for the most part, an inexperienced set of hands is a hindrance, not a help. It’s not for lack of work ethic or good intentions or talent – but I do tell our students: I can get more done in a day with nobody else around than I can with an inexperienced “helper”
So if a shop brings someone in to train, it’s in the hopes that they’ll stick around long enough to be an asset . . . . which they usually don’t.
Most shops are not in a position to offer attractive long-term careers. Good candidates have a funny way of leaving, often before the hiring shop has a chance to benefit financially from the relationship.
Can education help break the cycle? Or will it just speed things up?
Education can offer skills training, and a way to vet potential candidates. Very valuable! But they’ll still be considered relatively inexperienced.
They’ll lack speed, independence and consistency.
If shops can’t absorb someone in that emergent state, they’ll be funneled right back into self employment to bank the requisite experience.
If shops DO absorb them . . . . will candidates stay long enough to be an asset???
If the only thing education accomplishes is to speed up the inevitable funnel of self-employment, do we even bother? What’s the point in making a broken pipeline more efficient?
Let’s try another question: Does it matter? Is this the inevitable fate of our industry? Do we just shrug and accept that self-employment is the price of admission? Perhaps this is the only business model that works. Perhaps it is the most evolved way of being a modern upholsterer.
I don’t think there’s anything truly wrong with the “army of one” business model – it can be very elegant. Reduce overhead as much as possible. Build a referral network and reduce your marketing. Eliminate clients and services over time, carve away work you don’t like or whatever is least profitable.
It’s a successful adaptation, a survival strategy.
The problem arises when our industry is comprised almost entirely of identical itty bitty business models.
Because it means that most of us are competing in the same tiny slice of the market – that which can be done profitably by an army of one.
Meanwhile, giant, high-quality portions of the upholstery market are ignored or grossly underserved.
It’s very difficult for one self-employed upholsterer to compete effectively for commercial work, high-end design work, custom built furnishings, hospitality. Most of us can’t even get away from the shop long enough to offer pick-up and delivery.
Lack of diversity is costing our industry a heartbreaking number of opportunities.
But any shop who WANTS to grow will run into the 7-year gap.
By the time you can find a skilled candidate, they will almost certainly be self-employed. It was the only way to BECOME a skilled candidate.
And this cycle affects us all in another unsettling, subversive way – the, “Army of One” business model is hard to maintain. It’s physically and mentally exhausting, so there’s a high burnout rate. It has a single point of failure, which means the business is not easily sold, or left unattended – heaven forbid injury should occur.
The upholsterer/shop owner is probably working like crazy, hardly in a position to run their own business optimally, let alone to collaborate or care about the bigger industry picture.
Which means, as a community, we all lack strong partners.
It makes it really, really, really hard to create ANYTHING.
Education. Professional organizations. Trade conferences.
Can we alter the cycle? Or will we, as a community, simply keep repeating it? Are we doomed to become an industry of overwhelmed solopreneurs?
I hope not. It makes me CRAZY, seeing the work we aren’t competing for. We hear from designers across the country, looking for workrooms. We hear from workrooms across the country, looking for upholsterers. We hear from upholsterers across the country, who’ve retired, dropping lucrative, ongoing commercial accounts because nobody was there to absorb them.
There HAS to be a better way . . . but please understand: it’s not JUST an education problem.
And these larger industry issues will not be successfully resolved by the handful of well intentioned individuals who are currently attempting to provide education in the private market.
Looking ahead at what it would take to be an effective resource for professional level upholstery education, I believe we have at least 3 layers of significant challenge:
- Develop education that is intelligently adapted to our modern market – explore new flexible, blended models that are not dependent on proximity and large industry players. Figure out how to fund it.
- Develop healthy connections BETWEEN education and industry – find ways to connect serious-but-inexperienced students with early employment opportunities, in the hopes of disrupting the 7 year gap, without causing detriment to host shops.
- Encourage industry exploration of forward-focused business models. Create healthy business structures that don’t depend upon traditional long-term employee/employer relationships which are increasingly impractical and unsustainable.
So. Just a few obstacles.
Can we reshape the 7 year gap?
I’m an optimist. I believe that anything is possible – it’s just not possible alone.
I’d like to leave you with a quote that came across my desk last week – it’s excerpted from a 2007 Upholstery Journal, “From the editor’s desk”:
” . . The upholsterer, who says he has more work that he can handle, states that his biggest problem is a lack of skilled labor – which he is willing to pay for. And he laments that there isn’t a source for training or locating upholsterers in the area.
Upholstery Journal publishes an annual list of upholstery training programs, but perhaps we need to look at other ways of receiving information from schools and getting it to the industry and, more importantly, to upholstery shops in need of workers. Can we work together to make this happen? I’m open to your suggestions.”
Chris Tschida, Editor
In the 11 years since this articulate plea was printed, we’ve retired a decade’s worth of professionals, seen the closure of training programs referenced, and lost The Upholstery Journal itself.
We know that education is an issue – but this letter recognizes a fatal disconnect between education and industry that is too often overlooked.
So who’s responsible for fixing it?
We all are.
In spite of the significant challenges currently facing our industry, we continue to believe in possibilities for education, collaboration and progress. Please join us next week as we continue this summer-long discussion.