N.C. business survey gives reason for optimism in the months ahead

For expanding companies, some challenges remain, namely finding the right talent for the job

HIGH POINT — A survey of small to large businesses in North Carolina done by the North Carolina Department of Commerce this past fall gives reason for some optimism, including in the manufacturing sector. Among the positives: businesses were meeting or exceeding revenue goals heading into the latter part of the year.

That’s especially good news for small employers with fewer than 10 workers — which represented half the respondents in the Business Pulse Survey — as they often compete for some of the same customers as medium-to-larger-size businesses which were also surveyed.

Other key findings are as follows:

+ Almost half of the businesses surveyed expected business conditions to improve in the next several months.

+ Many planned to increase wages and training for their workers while also making investments in technology.

+ A majority of respondents also plan to increase staffing levels between now and the first and second quarters of 2022.

Much of the optimism in the business community relates to ongoing demand for goods and services. As an industry, we have seen plenty of this demand around the country as durable goods such as furniture remain high on consumers’ wish lists. So while more people may be going out to eat and even traveling more, many consumers continue to see online and in stores what they have been missing in home furnishings of late, which in turn has them wanting to keep spending on home décor.

In addition, categories, such as home office remain robust as people look for pieces to accommodate their ongoing ability to work-at-home. While many have returned to the office to some degree, working at home remains an increasingly popular alternative, particularly as it allows greater flexibility in the work schedule, particularly in communicating with contacts and clients around the world.

A worker at Newton Coley is seen upholstering panels at the company’s Newton, North Carolina upholstery plant, which Home News Now visited in late November. The company is expanding to a larger plant early this year and recently has been recruiting workers for a number of new jobs being created.

But the survey also raises some issues that remain a concern for businesses. The biggest issue was whether they can maintain staffing levels amidst all this ongoing demand for their goods and services. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said they were concerned about adequate staffing levels, particularly in finding enough qualified workers to do the job in the next six months.

In visiting various manufacturers in and outside North Carolina this past fall, Home News Now learned that this remains one of the biggest issues companies are facing moving forward. It’s been particularly true for companies that are expanding their operations to meet ongoing demand.

In almost every circumstance, the manufacturers aren’t just competing against other similar producers in their product categories. They also are competing against other employers, including fast food operations that are paying close to what they pay as manufacturers. Thus, the $16, $17, and $18 an hour starting wages for fast food workers is about the same is about the same companies are paying for entry level upholstery workers in western North Carolina.

For more experienced upholsterers, the rule of thumb, particularly for the upper middle and upper end of the segment, is closer to $25 an hour and as high as $30, some manufacturers have told Home News Now.

The fact that ongoing consumer demand for furniture is fueling growth — and competition — is what many describe as a good problem to have. In other words, for manufacturers whether they be in North Carolina, Virginia or West Virginia and beyond, finding people to employ and even pay the highest wages — is a lot better for them and their communities than the alternative we have seen in the past 20 years or more: losing jobs to Asia and other parts of the world. That trajectory decimated many factory towns in and outside North Carolina, not to mention parts of the South and the upper Midwest, so its good to see them growing and expanding once again.

But there’s a nagging question that remains. What happens once demand falters? Will those businesses that are now expanding need to downsize once again? So far that doesn’t appear to be an issue. But it’s one that many are hoping doesn’t come to pass anytime soon as they and their newfound employees are enjoying the fruits of their labors and their success.

For now, lets hope the optimism conveyed in the North Carolina survey continues into this year and beyond. It appears to be fueling the growth and expansion that many of us in the industry have waited too long to see and experience as investing in one’s home has become something of a trend for consumers across the U.S.

Thomas Russell

Home News Now Editor-in-Chief Thomas Russell has covered the furniture industry for 25 years at various daily and weekly consumer and trade publications. He can be reached at tom@homenewsnow.com and at 336-508-4616.

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