Canadian realtors are saying prices and sales of luxury homes are at an all-time high. Canadian manufacturers of high-end custom cabinets and millwork are saying the “Great Recession” has amounted to little more than a pause in their growth. Housing starts and building permits have returned to 2007 levels across the country, and economists are projecting strong growth all year even as our biggest export market still struggles to right itself. With some kitchen manufacturers reporting lead times of a year or more, the old, unanswered question from the boom years comes back to haunt us: where will Canada’s wood industry find the skilled workers to meet all this demand?
It looks increasingly as though we will not be able to meet it from within our existing population. In 2005, all of Ontario’s wood-processing programs combined graduated 229 trained woodworkers into a market of over 6,000 wood-products manufacturers. The largest advanced wood processing program in the country, the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing at the University of British Columbia, graduates about 25 woodworkers each year. At the other end, Human Resources Canada says retirements will account for 75 percent of all job openings by 2014. The Wood Manufacturing Council’s WoodLinks program promises to revive high school-level participation in woodworking education, but it is still in its infancy (see Ottawa, page 19). Barring a sudden, miraculous surge in interest in wood manufacturing among the nation’s youth, many employers will soon only be able to find unskilled workers to hire into the gaps left by veterans with 30 years’ experience. The impact to training budgets, quality and innovation will be significant, if nothing in this picture changes. A broad decline in our wood industry could be the result, especially since Europe and the U.S. are in the same boat.
According to a recent study in The Economist, China’s universities graduate five million people every year and India’s graduate three million. Of those, 135,000 have advanced degrees in engineering or computer science. Over 60,000 people from those two countries alone immigrate to Canada every year, most with university degrees. Studies by Statistics Canada show they often have difficulty finding employment at the level their education warrants. In 2001, 25 percent of immigrant men and 38 percent of women with university degrees were working in jobs that did not require a degree. If you can tap into this flow of educated talent, you may be able to stave off the worst effects of the coming demographic crunch.
Looking to countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, eastern Europe and Latin America for skilled innovators and leaders may seem counterintuitive because those areas have for years been viewed only as sources of cheap labour. Western companies have the intellectual property and capital resources, the thinking goes, and emerging economies have lax regulation regimes and low wages. But Canadian companies who hire skilled workers from overseas have found they can bring some unique talents to the table. Vince Curci, sales and marketing manager for Art For Everyday, has master wood-carvers on staff from Iran and Eastern Europe. He credits them with bringing a design edge to the company that he cannot find anywhere else. “Their influences, their social fabric, their social environment where they were raised, the historical exposure they were privy to growing up leaves an impact on a person,” Curci says. “Providing it is a creative person, you are going to tap into their creative side and it is going to impact the work they do, especially when it comes to designing original pieces. The trade and skill they learned was passed down through generations within their families.” Curci says Art For Everyday is approached on a weekly basis by carvers seeking work, and they are always immigrants, mostly from eastern Europe.
Furniture retailers in the Toronto area with imported, solid-wood, handcrafted furniture from India are able to charge art-house prices. Every single item is imported, and the proprietors scoff at the idea of finding domestic manufacturers to produce similar work. “It would not be cost effective,” Sorab Khandelwal of Inde-Art says. “People think ‘Oh my God, $400 for a coffee table,’ but these are not made by machinery, each piece is unique.” There is little doubt that producing this kind of furniture the same way it is done in India would never work in Canada. No one paying Canadian rates for housing and food is going to spend days carving an intricate table top then sell it for the equivalent of a few hours’ wages.
Of course, hand-carved furniture is not the only option for the future. One thing we do have in Canada that most Indian wood carvers do not have is access to capital funding. Technology exists that can scan a surface, even a surface as uneven and detailed as a human face, with a laser and create an accurate CAD file from the data gathered. It is not cheap, and requires some computer skills to use effectively. However, it does present the possibility that unique, hand-carved creations might be reproduced en masse using CNC machines that take data from CAD files. A piece of furniture that takes days to produce by hand is certainly not cost effective in Canada if you can only sell it once. But what if you can sell it dozens or hundreds of times? Conventional wisdom tells us the ornate, solid wood furniture cannot be produced efficiently, but technology may be changing the playing field.
Immigrant woodworkers fit neatly into this picture of the future of Canada’s wood industry. Many have technical education, enabling them to take advantage of productivity-enhancing equipment. Some have advanced carving skills and exposure to foreign design approaches that may find fertile ground in our markets. If the example of Modern Kitchen and Woodworking (see the Profile, page 14) is typical, they bring burning entrepreneurial spirit and careful thrift to the craft, as well. The recent examples of Gibbard, Canac and Siematic suggest the era of large, automated, mass-production shops with unionized labour may pass before it even gets started in Canada. If so, Canadians will keep on getting most of their wood products from someone born somewhere else.