Two years ago we began our mentorship group, in an effort to give serious students more regular access to instruction/support, to help them network and hopefully make the challenging leap from hobbyist to professional.
There were some heartening successes. But we also learned that it’s a LOOOOONG stretch between education and employment.
We’re very interested in better understanding and navigating that transition.
So this year, we’re trying a few new things with a very small group of students. We hope any insight gained will be helpful to our future program, and also to students and professionals in other places who are struggling with similar challenges.
Let me introduce our candidates:
“I graduated with a degree in International Business and Spanish, and did my MBA through UW Oskosh.
I accepted a position in international sales with Miller Electric and realized that I had to learn about welding (both process & product)
So I took some welding classes and was offered an International Sales Manager position for Central America. I moved to Miami, and then lived in Peru for 12 years. My last position with the company was Director of Sales and Marketing-Latin America. It was an exciting job that took me all over Latin America.
When we decided to move back to the U.S., I separated from the company. It was a hard decision but after many years of a lot of travel and too much responsibility and stress, I decided it was time to change directions.
I have always loved interior design and decor. Having lived in Peru I am drawn to bold colors and patterns so I decided to marry the two. Here I am. I hope to become proficient enough to start to do my own upholstery creations and I think the idea of starting a small business would be an interesting challenge. We’ll see what happens.”
“I have a degree in environmental design and a certificate in fine furniture and joinery.
Before starting my own furniture design business I worked at a design
firm, a ceramics studio and a custom wood shop in Minneapolis.
I have been interested in upholstery for a long time.
Last year I started taking introductory classes in the trade to help me better understand the materials and construction techniques involved in building upholstered furniture. It is my goal to incorporate this knowledge into building and upholstering my own designs.”
“I graduated from the U of M with majors in Latin and Classical Greek, and a minor in chemistry. My intention was to eventually continue on to medical school, but after a few years working in healthcare, I came to the conclusion that that was not the path for me.
I’ve always really enjoyed working with my hands. I’ve been a hobbyist woodworker for a few years, and am interested in furniture design and construction. I started working at Grahn’s Upholstery in June 2018, and have absolutely loved it.
Through the mentorship program, I look forward to practicing new skills and techniques so that I may be more proficient in my day-to-day work, as well as expand my imagination for furniture design and construction.”
So what are we doing differently with these students?
A significant portion of class time will still be dedicated to open workshop time, though with a pronounced focus on quality and comprehension. Do you understand what you’re learning? Can you apply it in the future without a teacher? Are you achieving high-quality results?
Open workshop allows us to meet individual students where they are at – even in a group of three, students come to class with very different prior experience, resources and goals. Open workshop gives the program room to breathe with the needs of each person.
But we are adding two components that we hope will make us more effective in our mission:
#1. Structured skill units designed for a flipped classroom
A “flipped classroom” delivers new content outside of class time, most commonly in video format.
(Our first unit in September was on boxed/welted cushions – watch the YouTube video here)
Class time is then used for “homework” – reviewing assigned material with the SUPPORT of a teacher. Instead of using limited hours to cover EVERYTHING, limited hours are used to focus on areas of confusion and importance.
(For more on this, check out our blog post, “Upholstery Education, Upside Down“)
While this is a relatively “new” education model, it’s currently being necessarily explored by most modern upholstery students. Everyone – EVERYONE – is working with limited access to hands-on education. The more intelligently we can use that access, the better.
With the support of Fabric Supply Inc., we’ll be able to create some clearly defined skill units. Everything? Never. So we’re focusing on skills that are most quantifiable, versatile and valuable. We fully acknowledge and expect that successful candidates will continue to learn for years. Hopefully, we can give them a good solid boost in the right direction.
#2. Working relationships with shops and partners
Education is only one piece of the proficiency puzzle. A much bigger piece is repetition and experience.
This is where our program has most notably stumbled. Especially working with very limited hours, most students simply were not getting the necessary time on task to achieve fluency in anything. In all likelihood, The Funky Little Chair will never be able to provide that necessary stage in the training process. Presently, the only way students have achieved that requirement is through self-employment.
And yet, there are shops around us looking frantically for skilled help.
Are there ways to work together and bridge that gap?
We’ve started talking with shops who perhaps have the right workload, business structure and mindset to benefit from a vetted and partially skilled candidate. If we want to see fully skilled professionals, we have to find better ways to discover and support them earlier. We anticipate a certain degree of failing forward in this messy new pursuit.
(For more on this, check out our post, “The Seven Year Gap“)
So with these new goals in mind, what did we look for when selecting candidates?
#1. 200 hours minimum experience
Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed to hear that the vast, vast majority of our candidates don’t travel past the hobbyist stage. Of the many who express a casual interest in becoming an upholsterer, only a smattering stay the course.
Upholstery as a profession is very different from upholstery for fun. The standards are higher, the hours are longer, the demands are like those of any career. Success takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.
MOST students figure out in the first year that they enjoy upholstery as a leisure activity, for themselves or friends. They perhaps enjoy taking their time, walking away when things get stressful or boring, saying “good enough” when they’re sick of a project.
And there’s nothing wrong with all that – it just doesn’t translate well to making your living in upholstery.
In this first year of asking workrooms to take a leap of faith on our students, it was HUGELY important that our candidates arrive with a clear understanding and a professional mindset. Few things are more disruptive to an already overwhelmed shop than a new hire who’s more interested in visiting than working. And most overwhelmed shops have already discovered this more than once.
Students who want to do all their learning in class won’t get very far – it just isn’t enough. In order to achieve educational success, we need to start with students who will do their homework and joyfully pursue outside resources and opportunities.
This probably goes without saying, but we looked for students with the ability and desire to achieve high quality results. Once you step into the professional arena, you’re wearing a hat that should be worn with integrity and pride.
In some fields, there are universally accepted standards that a new professional needs to learn and demonstrate.
Upholstery in the U.S. is currently not one of them.
In fact, most shops are primarily interested in having things done THEIR way, which can vary significantly from workroom to workroom, based on experience, preference and client base. They may want to see some skills, but they DEFINITELY want someone who’s coachable.
And for our purposes, this is ideal – given current factors and limitations, we need shops who are prepared to continue the training we’ve started. And we need candidates who are capable of and willing to adapt.
Stay tuned . . .
I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing a little about our plans for the year and our candidates. Please do follow along and share your comments and questions.
I’d like to thank Fabric Supply for investing in our efforts. If you are an upholsterer or upholstery student, please follow them on social media – they believe in the future of our industry, and in our collective ability to evolve and thrive.
I’d also like to thank the students, instructors and professionals who are supporting our efforts through Patreon. I am grateful for and humbled by your participation. I believe that amazing things are possible when individuals begin to work together.
- Angela D
- Sewing Den
- Austin S
- Living Home Furniture – Natural Upholstery
- Diane P
- Nailed it Upholstery
- Joan B
- Kara G
- Kathleen P
- Kay Chesterfield
- A Chick and a Chair Upholstery
- Lorry G
- Upholstery Education
- Felix Hart
- The Whimsical Chair
- Custom Workroom Technical Center