CVCC and industry team up to create furniture academies

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  • @CatawbaValleyCC Furniture Academies are leading the way for more collaborative programs to emerge. The academies are industry-focused – ensuring students receive quality training for high-demand jobs.

  • “We have been able to turn around and offer programming that is both relative and sustainable. We’re listening. That’s what we do.” @cvccled shares how @CatawbaValleyCC transformed a program.

Tyon Propst is meticulous – carefully laying the dust cover over the ottoman he is upholstering. He enjoys being creative and takes pride in the work he produces.

For Propst, attending Furniture Academy at Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) is a chance to achieve her professional and personal goals. He called the training profitable and said he continued to learn and be challenged even though he had extensive experience in furniture making.

The Furniture Academy is a hands-on training program that prepares students for high-demand jobs in manufacturing – a sector that accounted for 22.2% of total employment in Catawba Valley service areas from 2019 to 2020.

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With two locations in Catawba and Alexander counties, the program has more than 40 supporting partners, many of whom are furniture manufacturers.

This is a unique collaboration between the college and industry leaders.

Although they are competitors, the founding industry partners of both sites have come together to create a program that prepares students for skilled positions that are in high demand.

Students take a variety of courses ranging from furniture fundamentals to sewing to upholstery. And in eight to 11 months, they’re ready for the next step in their career with salaries ranging from $30,000 to $60,000.

Those who go through the academies enroll for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s a direct route to higher salaries. For others, it is an opportunity to improve and train. There are students in the program with advanced degrees who want hands-on experience to take their work to the next level.

Furniture academies have also welcomed students from careers spanning decades who need a change.

More than 350 students have graduated since the program’s inception in 2014, and it has a 100% employment rate. But the impact of the furniture academies does not stop there. The academy model has opened the doors to more collaborative partnerships to meet the growing needs of the community.

Video made by Michelle Lotker for EducationNC in March 2021.

The rebirth of a training center

Manufacturing is the largest employer in the Catawba Valley service area. According to a 2021 Economic Impact Study of North Carolina Community Colleges, the industry supported 27,428 jobs in Alexander and Catawba counties from 2019 to 2020.

For years, Catawba Valley offered a furniture-making program that educated students and responded to industry demands. But in the early 2010s, manufacturing CEOs told CVCC President Dr. Garrett Hinshaw that the program was no longer providing the training and skills their employees needed. Hinshaw made the decision to suspend the program in 2012.

The break gave college and industry leaders an opportunity to rethink their partnership.

In 2014, CVCC opened the doors of its first furniture academy located a few kilometers from the main campus. The college and its five founding industry partners (Century Furniture, Lee Industries, Lexington Home Brands, Sherrill Furniture and Vanguard Furniture) collaborated to create a program that would train students for secure jobs and meet the labor demands of the community.

In 2016, the college opened a second furniture academy in Alexander County with three founding industry partners: Craftmaster Furniture, Kincaid Furniture, and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.

The CVCC is the hub of the program, but the training itself is industry-led – with experts in the field filling instructor roles.

Ronnie Wilcox and Davashia Woods are instructors for the academy and both work in furniture making.

Wilcox has over 25 years of experience. He teaches because he knows how difficult it is to progress without quality training.

“I know where they come from – I’m trying to start [in the industry],” he said. “It’s rewarding for me to teach these guys…give back a little.”

Woods is an academy product and said it helped jump-start his career.

“You start at the bottom – don’t make a lot of money, try to figure out what you can do to support your family,” he said. “It took me from where I was to where I am now. It’s a good job – it pays off… it’s challenging… it’s rewarding.

The students think so too.

Hunter Hall comes from a family of furniture.

Hunter Hall, student at the CVCC Furniture Academy. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

“It’s already in my blood,” he said.

For Hall, the program is the next step to maximizing his education for better opportunities, but it’s also a chance to improve himself. Hall and his classmates are proud of the work they produce and say they appreciate an environment that allows them to be hands-on.

The academic environment makes a difference for many students who may be intimidated by the thought of returning to school. It is primarily a hands-on program and works in buildings that look a lot like furniture manufacturing facilities.

“It’s a much more supportive atmosphere,” said Gary Muller, CVCC’s executive dean of economic development and corporate training.

“Since 2014, 100% of graduates from our furniture academies have been employed in the field,” Hinshaw said.

College leaders said the numbers are a testament to the collaborative effort and thanked Hinshaw for his leadership and bringing industry leaders to the table.

“Catawba Valley Community College realized several years ago that we needed to change the way we do business, so we sat down with the leaders of the major manufacturing sector here in this area,” Hinshaw said. “We have been able to turn around and offer programming that is both relative and sustainable. We’re listening. This is what we do.”

A collaborative approach

Although furniture manufacturing is the largest employer in the Catawba Valley region, it is not the only industry in need of skilled employees.

After launching two furniture academies, the college established additional academies, including careers in construction, hospitality, maintenance technology, and marine engineering technology.

Like furniture academies, these programs train or retrain employees with the skilled skills needed to advance their careers. They also help employers hire people from within the community.

It is a model that has gained state and national recognition.

People from across the United States have been calling — even visiting some of the academies — hoping to better understand how they can start something similar.

Cindy Fulbright, Catawba Valley Furniture Academy project manager, said the lack of support from business partners often prevents others from replicating something like Furniture Academy.

“Our business partners have trusted us. They donate funds, they donate scholarships, they donate materials, they donate time to meet all of our needs,” Fulbright said. “And they are a leader in what makes this academy what She is.

“We need experts at the table because things change so quickly,” said Tammy Muller, executive director of strategic business partnerships for CVCC and SkillsUSA.

While the college listens to business and industry, it also listens to students about their academic goals. Academies can be a pathway to future accreditation, if students choose this option.

“A lot of students come in and they don’t think they can do this,” Fulbright said. “When they succeed [the curriculum] and moving into the lab area…it changes their lives, their self-esteem and who they are.

“Education is one of the most essential tools we have to break the cycles,” said Randall Burns, CVCC SEnior general manager of corporate and economic development. “It impacts their children and future generations.”

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.

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