A canvas beam table with Pari screens. Courtesy Herman Miller
Sit across from any furniture executive these days, and you’ll hear about new products, the internet of things and federal actions affecting business — but the talent gap will dominate the dialogue.
Heading into the 50th NeoCon convention in Chicago June 11-13, leaders of the more than $2-billion West Michigan commercial furniture industry are busy thinking and talking about innovation.
But advances can’t happen without a competitive workforce, and many manufacturers have a long list of unfilled positions as technology continues to outpace training.
Brian Walker is president and CEO of Zeeland-based Herman Miller, ranked by The Right Place as West Michigan’s largest furniture manufacturer, with 3,621 employees globally.
He said manufacturing jobs used to be split into two buckets: labor and knowledge. But the latter is permeating the former, so there now are very few manual jobs that require no “mental acuity.”
The “labor” jobs now involve digital skills such as programming, advanced repairs and constant problem-solving, not to mention operating tooling systems that can change with each new product launch.
When it comes to knowledge workers, it’s hard to find employees with expertise in e-commerce, data mining, tech training, engineering, design and business.
“Finding that mix continues to be a challenge everywhere,” Walker said.
Jim Keane — president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase, the second-largest furniture maker in the region with 3,500 employees — said the shift is common to all manufacturers.
“I think it’s terrific because it eliminates jobs where people would learn a certain routine and do it day after day,” he said. “The jobs we are creating unlock human potential. But they also involve retraining.”
Both manufacturers are taking action to be part of the solution.
“We’ve made a number of changes on how we attract direct labor, including changes in benefits offerings,” Walker said. “We’ve developed connections to local schools with trade programs for entry-level positions, such as Grand Rapids Community College and high schools, and we have our own teacher on-staff who recruits out of high schools.”
The company also provides tuition remittance for ongoing education and upskilling.
“On the more knowledge-based side, one thing is Herman Miller is not centric to one location, so it enables us to pick from the broadest pool of folks for high-skill roles,” Walker said.
“We are also doubling down on our commitment to inclusiveness to make sure we draw from the widest pool of backgrounds. We have a really well-developed internship program where we are bringing in more interns, 50 percent of whom right now are female, and 35 percent are ethnic minorities.”
Keane said once upon a time, cities and states competed for workers based on utility costs, the tax climate and other such factors. Now, an additional imperative is having a training infrastructure in place to upskill workers.
In that respect, he said Grand Rapids has “great potential, with the universities and school systems getting better.”
But Keane said Steelcase recognizes it holds a large portion of the responsibility for communicating its needs and participating in training.
“We have to help people build new skills,” he said. “We can’t take it for granted.”
Steelcase already has an apprenticeship program that allows experienced workers to retire to part time and work on the side, training the next generation of workers.
“We can speak to the education systems, but I think the business community needs to go beyond that and work and engage more completely via public-private partnerships,” Keane said. “We should develop the content and rely on the educators to implement it. Those companies that figure it out will have an edge.”
Keane serves on the education subcommittee of the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C., and he said employers working with school systems is a nationally supported concept but still in its infancy in regard to implementation.
Mark Kinsler, president of Holland-based Trendway, which has 325 employees, said it’s not as if furniture manufacturers are each other’s only competition for talent.
“Our unemployment rate in Ottawa County is at 2.6 percent,” he said. “The automotive companies seem to be doing well at the same time, so it impacts the entire (playing field). We’ve seen people come from other industries to us and vice versa. We’ve had to sell the environment and the culture here.”
For shop workers, Trendway started offering a four-day workweek to appeal to people who work second jobs or have tricky child care situations. He said that opened up a new pool of talent.
“We looked at it for a year before pulling the trigger,” he said.
On the sales side, furniture makers are able to use the talent gap to market their products to businesses as a way to augment employee comfort, productivity, community, well-being and loyalty.
“Increasingly, although you can work from anywhere, companies want you to come and stay in the space,” Walker said. “How do I make the space as much about community and group activities as it is about work?”
An element behind Steelcase’s partnership with Microsoft on the Creative Spaces it rolled out last year was the need to keep employees engaged and productive — which in turn promotes retention.
“Today’s work environments have to provide a range of settings,” Keane said. “We all create differently. With creative work, you have to realize some are more introverts, some are extroverts, and some do their best creative thinking when they lock themselves away.”
Dave Shaffer — CEO of Haworth furniture dealer Interphase Interiors, which has 28 employees and is based in Grand Rapids — said recent studies published by Grand Valley State University and Colliers International West Michigan have said the growth greater Grand Rapids is experiencing means it will be of the utmost importance to keep offices up to date.
“When we’re ranked No. 1 as a place to live, work and play, we’re going to have a lot of good, new furnishings to meet that need,” he said.
Franco Bianchi, president and CEO of Holland-based Haworth, with 2,000 employees, said a one-and-done approach won’t cut it for a generation with so many job options.
“In North America, with spaces designed for the vast majority of offices, workstations were made with panels or cubicles. More and more, our clients are learning to tailor spaces and products to the needs of people. Talent trumps (the old mindset) — a different look and feel, different heights, different level of privacy, different functions, a feel of hospitality in the work environment.”
Walker said the economic outlook for the industry is positive, with a caveat.
“When corporate profits are high, people tend to invest in their infrastructure. You’re not going to be able to attract and retain competitive employees if your office looks like the ’90s,” he said.
“Change produces opportunity.”