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Nature of the Work
* Most woodworkers are trained on the job; basic machine operations may be learned in a few months, but becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 2 years or more.
* Overall employment is projected to grow more slowly than average; demand for customized wood products will spur growth among precision woodworkers, while increasing automation and imports will result in a decline among woodworking machine operators.
* Job prospects will be best for highly skilled workers and those with knowledge of computer-controlled machine tool operation.
In spite of the development of sophisticated composites and alloys, the demand for wood products continues unabated. Helping to meet this demand are production and precision woodworkers. Production woodworkers can be found in primary industries, such as sawmills and plywood mills, as well as in secondary industries that manufacture furniture, kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, and other fabricated wood products. Precision woodworkers, on the other hand, usually work in small shops that make architectural woodwork, furniture, and many other specialty items.
All woodworkers are employed at some stage of the process through which logs of wood are transformed into finished products. Some of these workers produce the structural elements of buildings; others mill hardwood and softwood lumber; still others assemble finished wood products. They operate machines that cut, shape, assemble, and finish raw wood to make the doors, windows, cabinets, trusses, plywood, flooring, paneling, molding, and trim that are components of most homes. Others may fashion home accessories such as beds, sofas, tables, dressers, and chairs. In addition to these household goods, they also make sporting goods, including baseball bats, racquets, and oars, as well as musical instruments, toys, caskets, tool handles, and thousands of other wooden items.
Production workers usually set up, operate, and tend woodworking machinessuch as power saws, planers, sanders, lathes, jointers, and routersto cut and shape components from lumber, plywood, and other wood panel products. Working from blueprints, instructions from supervisors, or shop drawings that they produce, woodworkers first determine the best method of shaping and assembling parts. Before cutting, they must often measure and mark the materials. They also verify dimensions to adhere to specifications and may trim parts to insure a tight fit, using handtools such as planes, chisels, wood files, or sandpaper.
Most production woodworkers operate a specific woodworking machine, but others are responsible for a variety of machines. Lower skilled operators may merely press a switch on a woodworking machine and monitor the automatic operation, while more highly skilled operators set up equipment, cut and shape wooden parts, and verify dimensions using a template, caliper, or rule. In sawmills, machine operators cut logs into planks, timbers, or boards. In veneer mills, they cut veneer sheets from logs for making plywood. And in furniture plants, they make furniture components such as table legs, drawers, rails, and spindles.
The next step in the manufacturing process is the production of subassemblies using fasteners and adhesives. These pieces are then brought together to form a complete unit. The product is then finish sanded, stained, and if necessary, coated with a sealer such as lacquer or varnish. Woodworkers may perform this work in teams or be assisted by a helper.
Woodworkers have been greatly affected by the introduction of computer-controlled machinery. This technology raises worker productivity by allowing one operator to simultaneously tend a greater number of machines. With computerized numerical controls, an operator can program a machine to perform a sequence of operations automatically, resulting in greater precision and reliability. The integration of computers with equipment has improved production speeds and capabilities, simplified setup and maintenance requirements, and increased the demand for workers with some computer skills.
While this costly equipment has had a great impact on workers in the largest, most efficient firms, precision or custom woodworkerswho generally work in smaller firmshave continued to employ the same production techniques they have used for many years. These workers, such as cabinetmakers, model makers, wood machinists, and furniture and wood finishers, work on a customized basis, often building one-of-a-kind items. Precision woodworkers generally perform a complete cycle of cutting, shaping, surface preparation, and assembling prepared parts of complex wood components into a finished wood product. For this reason, they normally need substantial training and an ability to work from detailed instructions and specifications. In addition, they often are required to exercise independent judgment when undertaking an assignment.
Working conditions vary by industry and specific job duties. In primary industries, such as logging and sawmilling, working conditions are physically demanding due to the handling of heavy, bulky material. Workers in this area may also encounter excessive noise and dust and other air pollutants. However, these factors may be controlled by using earplugs and respirators. Rigid adherence to safety precautions minimizes risk of injury from contact with rough woodstock, sharp tools, and power equipment. The risk of injury is also lowered by the installation of computer-controlled equipment that reduces the physical labor and hands-on contact with the machine.
In secondary industries, such as furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing, working conditions also depend on the industry and the particular job. Employees who operate machinery must often wear ear and eye protection, follow operating safety instructions, and use safety shields or guards. Those who work in the finishing area must either be provided with an appropriate dust or vapor mask, a complete protective safety suit, or be in a finishing environment that removes all vapors and particle matter from the atmosphere. Prolonged standing, lifting, and fitting heavy objects are also common characteristics of the job.
Woodworkers held about 359,000 jobs in 1996. Self-employed woodworkers, mostly cabinetmakers and furniture finishers, accounted for 35,000 of these jobs. Employment was distributed as follows:
Woodworkers, precision 229,000 Woodworking machine setters and operators 130,000 Head sawyers 66,000 Woodworking machine operators 64,000
About 80 percent of salaried woodworkers were employed in manufacturing industries. Among these woodworkers, 27 percent were found in establishments fabricating household and office furniture and fixtures; another 27 percent were in establishments making millwork, plywood, and structural wood members, used primarily in construction; and 12 percent worked in sawmills and planing mills manufacturing a variety of raw, intermediate, and finished woodstock. Woodworkers also were employed by wholesale and retail lumber dealers, furniture stores, reupholstery and furniture repair shops, and construction firms.
Woodworking jobs are found throughout the country. However, production jobs are concentrated in the South and Northwest, close to the supply of wood, while furniture makers are more prevalent in the East. Custom shops can be found everywhere, but are generally concentrated in or near highly populated areas.
Most woodworkers are trained on the job, picking up skills informally from experienced workers. Some acquire skills through vocational education or by working as carpenters on construction jobs. Others may attend colleges or universities that offer training in areas including wood technology, furniture manufacturing, wood engineering, and production management. These programs prepare students for positions in production, supervision, engineering, or management.
Beginners usually observe and help experienced machine operators. They may supply material or remove fabricated products from the machine. Trainees do simple machine operating jobs and are at first closely supervised by experienced workers. As they gain experience, they perform more complex jobs with less supervision. Some may learn to read blueprints, set up machines, and plan the sequence of their work. Most woodworkers learn the basic machine operations or job tasks in a few months, but becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 2 years or more.
Employers increasingly seek applicants with a high school diploma or the equivalent because of the growing sophistication of machinery and the constant need for retraining. Persons seeking woodworking jobs can enhance their employment and advancement prospects by completing high school and receiving training in mathematics, science, and computer applications. Other important qualities for entrants in this occupation include mechanical ability, manual dexterity, and the ability to pay attention to detail.
Advancement opportunities are often limited and depend upon availability, seniority, and a worker's skills and initiative. Experienced woodworkers may become inspectors or supervisors responsible for the work of a group of woodworkers. Production workers can advance into these positions by assuming additional responsibilities and by attending workshops, seminars, or college programs. Those who are highly skilled may set up their own woodworking shops.
Employment of woodworkers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2006, as job growth among precision woodworkers will be partially offset by the decline in employment of woodworking machine operators. Demand for woodworkers will be generated by increases in population, personal income, and business expenditures, in addition to the continuing need for repair and renovation of residential and commercial properties. Therefore, opportunities should be particularly good for woodworkers who specialize in such items as moldings, cabinets, stairs, and windows. Prospects will also be good for other highly skilled woodworkers and those with knowledge of computer-controlled machine tool operation.
Several factors may limit the growth of woodworking occupations in coming years. Technological advances like robots and computerized numerical control machinery will prevent employment from rising as fast as the demand for wood products, particularly in the mills and manufacturing plants where many of the processes can be automated. In addition, some jobs will be lost in the United States as imports continue to grow and as U.S. firms move production to other countries. Environmental measures designed to control various pollutants used in or generated by woodworking processes may also impact employment, especially in secondary industries such as household furniture. Finally, the demand for wood may be reduced somewhat as materials such as metal, plastic, and fiberglass continue to be used as alternatives to wood in many products. As a result of these trends, employment opportunities in the primary wood industries may be more limited than those in the secondary industries.
Employment in all woodworking occupations is highly sensitive to economic cycles, so job growth will be primarily affected by the overall state of the economy. Although this growth will be modest, thousands of openings will arise each year because of the need to replace experienced woodworkers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Median weekly earnings for salaried full-time precision woodworkers were about $400 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $290 and $520. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $240, while the highest 10 percent earned over $690. Median weekly earnings for full-time woodworking machine operators were around $370 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $290 and $500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $220, while the highest 10 percent earned over $620. Earnings vary by industry, geographic region, skill, educational level, and complexity of the machinery operated.
Some woodworkers, such as those in logging or sawmills, who are engaged in processing primary wood and building materials, are members of the International Association of Machinists. Others may belong to the United Furniture Workers of America or the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
Many woodworkers follow blueprints and drawings and use machines to shape and form raw wood into a final product. Workers who perform similar functions working with other materials include precision metalworkers, metalworking and plastics-working machine operators, metal fabricators, molders and shapers, and leather workers.
For information about woodworking occupations, contact local furniture manufacturers, sawmills and planing mills, cabinetmaking or millwork firms, lumber dealers, a local of one of the unions mentioned above, or the nearest office of the State employment service.
For general information about furniture woodworking occupations, contact:
American Furniture Manufacturers Association, Manufacturing Services Division, P.O. Box HP-7, High Point, NC 27261.
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