"My Graduate Is Interested In The Furniture Industry – What Is Your Advice?"
05/12/23 Edition Stephen Says Column

Dear Stephen,

My son is graduating from college this month and he is interested in the furniture industry. I’m a regional Vice President for a major furniture manufacturer out of #GrandRapids. I’ve had a long and fulfilling career. I love the company that I work for and I love our industry.

I’ve been able to provide a good income for my family and I would say I’ve been consistently happy in my workplace. Now, my son, much to my surprise, says he’s interested in the furniture industry. I’m not clear if he wants to start in sales like his old man or if he’s interested in marketing or product development. My wife and I never want to push the kids, so I’m not trying to steer him in any direction.

I should add that my son is very interested in architecture and might go for an advanced degree at some later date.

Here’s my question, what’s the job market like for people getting out of college today? My son has never expressed a lot of interest in what I do, he’s just seen me happy at my job over the years and I imagine that’s why he has a positive impression of the furniture and design industry. My own career has been very focused in sales and, other than at HQ, I see very few entry-level positions. At my company we have less opportunity in field sales because we’re always looking for people with experience and existing relationships, in other words, revenue generators. Part of me is flattered that my son wants to follow in my footsteps while part of me is wondering what exactly he’ll do and where the economy is going to bring us later this year. I love reading your column and would really appreciate any advice you have for me and my son. 

Proud Dad
Dear Dad,

You have a lot of emotions there rolled up into one. Reading your letter, it’s apparent that you have been very happy in your job. You’ve been successful, you enjoy working for your company very much and, as a result of all of that, you provided a good living for your family. So it’s important that I congratulate you for your successful career, and congratulate your son for the distinction of graduation from college! 

It sounds sort of simple to me because your son has seen you happy from what you do, that he would want to get into furniture. If he was leaning towards architecture to begin with, and you work for one of the big companies in the industry, it’s just natural that he may want to follow in your footsteps. As we all know, the contract furniture industry is not limited just to sales positions. He could work for one of the big manufacturers in a management training program, or he could work at corporate. And it doesn’t have to be a major manufacturer – there are plenty of great companies out there! Believe it or not, manufacturers big and small all have entry level positions. Let’s also not limit it to office furniture – don’t let him forget about textiles, lighting, floor covering, health care, hospitality, and residential brands!  

Here's something important that I’ve noticed about the present moment: young people today tell me that they like working in an interactive environment, simply put – NOT HYBRID! Young people like, and need, the socialization of simply going to work. Younger employees want to make friends and have colleagues. The nice thing about working today is that no job has to be forever, like it might have been in your generation. So, if your son starts at a company and it doesn’t work out, he could choose a different company or a different career completely. He’s better off doing it while he’s young! 

As far as your concerns about the economy and the future, we all share those same concerns about inflation, possible recession, and today’s unique political climate. All I can say about that is we should hope for the best, focus on the positive, and know that young people are very resilient.

Here are some suggested ways for him to start: 

He should go online; scour the websites of companies he wants to work for and see which ones have entry level sales training programs or other entry level positions. He’s more likely to find them on the website than on LinkedIn, but he should look for open positions on LinkedIn as well. Don’t let him limit himself to contract furniture, suggest he consider some of the high-end luxury brands, even if it means working in a store. There’s also plenty of showrooms that have administrative positions, sales assistants and project managers. And you sound well connected yourself – why not let your son get his feet wet as a sales assistant or account manager in a furniture dealership? He might like the fast-paced action at a dealership or he can go from there to a position at a manufacturer. He has the advantage of taking it a step at a time to see if he likes a certain job or a specific industry.

I started my own career shortly out of college with my first job at Haworth, in sales, in New York City. Entry level it was, at $38K in the late 80s. I loved the company, I loved the culture, and that foundation helped me understand better that I wanted to create The Viscusi Group. The lesson here is you’ll never know where you’ll end up. Tell your son to look up my first book called “On The Job: How To Make It In The Real World of Work.” (Three Rivers Press). It’s an homage to my first job at #Haworth as well as a how-to book on entry level positions, and it’s still available on Amazon.

Thank you for your letter, I’m wishing the best to you and your son, and congrats to all the class of 2023 graduates! Welcome to the real world of work!