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‘Hiring Additional People Has Been Incredibly Difficult,’ CEO Says

When Universal Furniture opened its new production facility nearly two years ago in Conover, N.C. it had no idea how difficult it would be to find workers for the operation.

Universal had recently acquired Southern Furniture, including the Conover plant, and while many of those Southern workers stayed on, Universal’s production demands far outpaced the previous company’s workforce. And as it began ramping up improvements and pushing to bring on new staff, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, making it tougher to find labor, despite the facility remaining open.

“It has been a challenge,” said Sean O’Connor, vice president of sales for Universal Furniture, a producer of home goods for the bedroom, living room and dining room. “Because we’re competing against companies that have been manufacturing in this area of North Carolina for generations, and since Universal is new to the area, there is no knowledge of us as an employer.”

In a year-plus of the pandemic, the furniture industry has been hit by a storm of unprecedented consumer demand, supply chain disruptions and scarcity, and labor shortages due to Covid absences or fear of returning to in-person work. And those factors have combined to make the wait times for delivery of furniture purchases stretch into months in some cases.

“Labor remains a key issue with regards to shipping delays,” said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance. “Although plant-level labor issues are slowly improving, gaps still exist. Also, driver shortages impact the timeliness of furniture shipments.”

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Some companies point to extended unemployment benefits, including the $300 weekly stipend from the federal government, as a hindrance for some to return to full-time work, particularly as cases of the Delta variant continue to rise. The federal benefit is set to expire Sept. 6.

“Our business has increased dramatically in the last two seasons, and hiring additional people has been incredibly difficult,” said Kathy Juckett, CEO of Telescope Casual Furniture. “And I can’t blame those people because they’re making the best decisions for their family. If they can be home and make more on unemployment and not have to pay childcare, they have to make those decisions for their family.”

But labor issues in the furniture industry aren’t a new problem. Before Covid, many companies struggled to find skilled laborers to work in their facilities. Certain furniture-making skills require additional training, and when workers age out and retire, it’s critical for manufacturers to have employees with comparable skills ready to step up in their place.

“Attracting new, young talent was a primary focus prior to the pandemic and remains one today,” Counts said. “Much of the skilled workforce is nearing retirement age—training programs at local community colleges will play a key role in helping to bridge this gap.”

And companies have ramped up on-the-job training to not only attract new employees, but also to develop talent in existing workers.

“We get to know our employees really well and find out what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Juckett said. “And we teach them—it gives them a sense of upward mobility.”

Juckett said Telescope also incentivizes employee referrals, giving current workers bonuses for bringing in qualified candidates who get hired. Universal does that as well, in addition to improving its benefits package to entice new employees.

“While everyone’s business is growing right now, Universal is growing at a totally different pace and level,” O’Connor said. “We had a very established import upholstery business and layering in domestic manufacturing with options compounded our growth. We are thankfully healthy enough and more than willing to invest in dedicated employees who want to be a part of something special.”

O’Connor said one of the biggest challenges—aside from the pandemic—is spreading the word about the opportunities available at Universal. The company has made major investments in the Conover facility, including new equipment and upgrades to the building that he hopes will set it apart from other furniture manufacturers in a highly competitive job market.

But until furniture companies find ways to not only offer attractive positions to potential employees, but also increase awareness about the level of opportunity available in the industry, the problem of labor shortfalls is likely to persist.

“This has been an issue and will continue to be one as we move past the current pandemic-related problems,” Counts said. “The industry has much to offer in terms of career opportunities, and we need to better communicate this to all audiences.”