Experienced upholsterers consider the loss of training in their trade, and how to bring in new talent.
With 39 years in the upholstery industry, Chip Lueck recalls a vast pool of shops around the country with talented upholsterers.
“It’s not there anymore,” says the owner of Recovery Room in Panama City Beach, Fla. “I’ve talked to sales reps who say they’re seeing more and more people my age  going out of business with no one to take over.”
The owner of Sewline Upholstery Ltd. in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, agrees.
“It’s a forgotten industry that is going down,” Robert Burkart says. “I was trained in two shops—six years in furniture and seven in automobiles—before I went on my own. Three to four years [of experience] is not enough to do the quality work that customers expect.
“We need to start teaming up as employers,” he adds. “A lot of places have closed down. There’s not enough educational backing, such as apprenticeship programs to introduce the younger generation [to upholstery].”
To find skilled employees, he has taken his search online through Canada’s Express Entry program and has hired one individual from the United Kingdom and another from Jamaica. It’s not a quick or inexpensive process. Indeed, employers have to pay for a new employee’s airfare to Canada and living accommodations with furniture for their first three months of residency. Burkart reasons that this is simply the cost of getting skilled labor.
Phillip Russell, president of PCR Restorations and Lehr Awning Co. in Mansfield, Ohio, has better fortune, with a 47-year-old son running day-to-day operations while he concentrates on sales and training.
However, he says, “Schools don’t teach sewing anymore. You have to find somebody looking for a job and then train them. It takes about three or four years when you hire people before they can pull vinyl and staple it on their own. If you don’t know how to make vinyl work, the cover isn’t going to look nice.”
Finding employees with experience has proven tricky, says Rick Wisotzkey, one of two canvas technicians at Short’s Marine in Millsboro, Del. “A strong skill level of sewing machine operation is a must; it is probably best for the rest to be taught on the job.”
“Although many individuals want to learn the skill, opportunities have been limited to all but the self-taught,” says Diana Shroyer Guenther, owner of Shroyer Custom Upholstery in Coon Rapids, Minn., and president of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota (PUAM). “Technical colleges throughout Minnesota closed the doors on upholstery programs. PUAM is working hard to tackle the challenging task of promoting education for the next generation of upholsterers, as well as offering continuing study for those in the business. The other issue, which is related, is that a lot of the shops are run by people who are getting ready to retire.”
Of PUAM’s 38 shop members, four have been in business less than five years. Guenther believes the industry has the potential for growth, especially in view of the trend to repurpose that is part of the green movement.
“We are trying to do something to maintain quality by teaching people interested in carrying on this profession,” she says. “We are talking about apprenticeships and mentoring students. We want to help the growth of this industry.”
Guenther adds that Steve Cone, a retired upholstery shop owner and teacher at Minnesota’s Century College when it had an upholstery program in the 1990s, provides educational presentations at PUAM meetings.
“Those that are newer are learning from that, and those of us who have been in the industry sometimes learn a new technique,” Guenther says.
Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and magazine editor based in San Diego, Calif.