N.C. State drops furniture focus as need fades away
Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, February 25, 2013
RALEIGH, N.C. - This semester, North Carolina State University will graduate its last group of students with a furniture focus.
Steven Walker, an extension specialist at N.C. State's Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center, has no illusions about what is ending its 65-year run. The focus of the center's students was "100% residential case goods," he said.
"You could easily make the case that we should have changed that a long time ago," Walker said.
It's no secret that North Carolina's case goods production has mostly moved offshore. Furniture industry employment has declined dramatically in the state, from close to 93,000 in 2000 to 37,968 in 2012, according to the FMMC's numbers for the state.
The Furniture Manufacturing and Management curriculum at N.C. State was established by industry leaders and manufacturers in 1948 to cultivate engineers and managers for furniture industry careers.
To provide ongoing funding for the program, Henry A. Foscue - president of Globe Parlor Furniture and of High Point's Southern Furniture Exposition Building, now the International Home Furnishings Center - established the Furniture Foundation.
Since Foscue's death, the foundation has been administered by the American Home Furnishings Alliance. While its initial focus was on N.C. State, it also began supporting other schools over time.
In 1992, the FMMC curriculum changed from one offering a furniture degree to offering furniture as an option within the industrial engineering curriculum. Students could take courses to "give them a taste of the furniture industry," but received a broader industrial engineering background.
Students with a furniture focus became familiar with woodworking equipment and design projects, eventually helping a company solve a manufacturing problem, among other coursework.
Walker said one reason the curriculum is ending is that after giving the FMMC $75,000 in 2011, the Furniture Foundation stopped contributing to the program. N.C. State prefers that its curriculum gets support from industries they focus on, he said.
The center is expected to lose the Furniture Manufacturing and Management name, and its focus will be on advanced manufacturing, specifically related to aerospace and medical fields, Walker said. Its lab will continue to do testing for contract office furniture, which has been a good source of revenue, he said.
Furniture, meanwhile, has become less lucrative for graduates than other fields. Walker said that in a jobs fair on campus this month, 240 companies will offer engineering students between $50,000 and $65,000 upon graduation.
"Nobody in the furniture industry will offer that much money. So a young person needs to really want to be in the furniture industry for whatever reasons. It might be family ties or geographical, an ‘I want to live in Hickory' type of thing,'" Walker said. "The only thing that's going to get our students into the furniture industry is a willingness to take a lot less money in the marketplace otherwise."
While the FMMC once graduated 10 to 20 students a year, annual enrollment dwindled to five to 10 students in the past two decades.
Virginia-based manufacturer and importer Hooker Furniture was one beneficiary of N.C. State's furniture curriculum.
"We have hired a lot of people that were educated there. A lot of managers, our former president, Doug Williams, probably three or four of our plant managers, three or four of our sales representatives," said Paul Toms, chairman and CEO of Hooker.
Toms said wood furniture manufacturing's move offshore diminished opportunities in the industry for graduates.
"We used to have five plants and employed a lot of those graduates and we don't today. That's just indicative of what's happened in the industry and it's sad. But it's also just evolution," he said.
Meanwhile, other university programs related to the industry are continuing, including Mississippi State's Franklin Furniture Institute and High Point University's courses in design and marketing, Toms said.
Andy Counts, CEO of the AHFA, said graduates from N.C. State's furniture curriculum have helped to develop some successful companies.
"Many of those graduates remain industry leaders today, and their impact will be felt for generations to come," he said. "It is an unfortunate reality that N.C. State must adapt its programs to meet the changing needs of its students."
N.C. State's Walker said that by 2000 it became obvious that the improving quality and price advantage of imports would seriously diminish domestic case goods manufacturing.
"None of us anticipated the speed with which it would change.... It was fast," he said.
Residential furniture manufacturers might have fared better if they had invested in technology during the 1980s, and were quicker to adopt new management techniques, commitments to worker training and lean manufacturing, he said.
The office furniture industry did better at adopting new technologies and was much less affected by imports, he said.
"They're much more likely to invest in technology. Much more likely to invest in people," Walker said. "So guess what, they're still around. They're still making products."
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