Author’s note: This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Stuff Stitch – The Upholstery Magazine.
Across the U.S., we have seen a steady exodus of skilled tradespeople, along with many small businesses, as retirement consistently outpaces the number of new upholstery professionals coming in.
And so the cry is regularly raised, “WE NEED EDUCATION!”
Indeed, we do.
But what IS professional education, after all? If you forced me to define it, I would say something like “Education which prepares a candidate for employment.”
For a long time, it seems upholstery has shared an idea that simply restoring vocational programs could magically repopulate our labor pool.
But this is a problematic oversimplification.
If you look at “professional education” in other fields, you’ll find that there exists a critical bridge, somehow connecting school to career.
It doesn’t matter if you’re training doctors, teachers, or hair stylists: Successful professional education works in partnership with early employment.
7 or 8 years ago, when I first started studying this trend, seeing first-hand the growing market need in my home state of Minnesota, I shared the same vague idea that a classroom creates candidates.
But as we gained visibility, I was shocked at how quickly we attracted students and business owners from across the country, struggling with identical market issues.
What was going on?
If there is a need for new professionals, and candidates trying to learn, surely education is the anecdote. So why have we continued to lose programs?
Here’s what I now think:
Upholstery didn’t lose education.Upholstery lost APPRENTICESHIPS. . . THEN we lost education.
Because you cannot justify or sustain trades training if there is no consistently demonstrable bridge to carry candidates into careers. If the apprenticeship bridge collapses, trades training will (and did) erode behind it.
There is sufficient documentation to support this theory, in degree and certificate programs that gradually optimized for casual learners, and others that struggled, then closed entirely.
In most states, remaining education has almost no relationship to the businesses around it, in spite of our lack of skilled candidates.
This gap between learning and working has been widening for decades, even as our numbers continued to decline, and restoring it would be no small feat.
But still, progress DOES march on.
Without sufficient apprenticeship paths, students overwhelmingly had but one means of professional entry: Early self-employment.
Candidates who make it through now, almost always do so by starting a new business and essentially apprenticing themselves. It’s a hobby that grows legs and runs away, as someone grabs hold for the ride.
Incredibly, THAT is the current entry path of least resistance.
How can starting your own business, very early on, with almost no access to live training, mentorship, or practical, supervised experience be the most accessible option??
And yet it is.
Now a related question: the candidate who has to establish a business in order to gain mastery – how likely is it that they’re now looking to work for anyone else?
And so we have a reoccurring loop that doesn’t address our labor shortage.
Many would say this is appropriate evolution – Tiny sole proprietorships are the model of the future! It’s expensive to have employees, and even more expensive to train them!!
And I would cede the point partially – Yes, a majority of tiny businesses IS probably appropriate. It’s flexible, low overhead, meets a lot of needs . . .
But I also know we’re seeing a lot of maxed out soloprenuers, often surprisingly early in their careers, with incredibly limited options for growth.
As each new candidate gets through the almost impossibly narrow point of professional entry, they will soon bang their head on the same low ceiling: That which one person can do alone.
And considerable opportunities get left on the table unclaimed.
So what can we do? Where did our bridge go? Do we have critical industry mass at this point to rebuild it? How can we move students and businesses closer together? What are the options for already maxed-out businesses, when training a professional takes years?
Could learning and working successfully overlap? What would we put directly into the hands of apprentices and business owners to make those relationships more viable?
If there is market need, then there ARE solutions for meeting it.
And there. Is. NEED.
But we certainly can’t slap up the same training models that fell down before without seriously examining fatal cracks in their design.
If we want to look at PROFESSIONAL training, we can’t assume it’s a classroom-only issue.
The restoration of trades training in upholstery should and must include ongoing conversations between education and industry.
Teachers cannot do this work alone.
Creator Cynthia Bleskachek recently gave a webinar for the National Upholstery Association elaborating on possible solutions to our training gap. Watch the replay here: Skilled Workforce: How Online Training Programs Could Help You Grow Your Team