Assessing Cabinetmaking Skill Levels

      Skill in a cabinet shop is hard to even define, much less quantify. October 26, 2011

Question
What are the best ways to differentiate skill levels of cabinetmakers? For example, if you were to say a level 1 cabinetmaker has just started and a level 5 is a master of the craft, what sort of skills would the level 5 have? What would a level 4 be able to do? Or do you think it all just comes down to experience? I'm really interested to hear people's opinions on this!

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor T:
There is an organization called Woodlinks that is currently involved with the certification of woodworking skills. They are in the process of developing standards that an employer could use to evaluate varying skill sets amongst job applicants.

I think that your business model is very interesting. Particularly the part where a prospective employee can establish his or her own wage rate. This solves the conundrum we all face when hiring a new worker. For a variety of reasons the wage rate always seems to be established before anybody has any conclusive information about contribution rate. The prospective employee would never agree to a purchase price for an automobile, sight unseen, yet somehow thinks a prospective employer should be able to do just that.

The only thing that is certain at this point in the hiring phase is how much money the worker desires or requires. Since this is the only true known in the transaction, this should be the leading point.



From contributor G:
I think it's difficult to categorize skill sets in the way you are thinking. I've been fortunate (and unfortunate) to have worked in a number of shops over the years. Each shop did things a little or a lot different than the last. It gave me the chance to learn another way of doing things. Some of the time I was enlightened, other times I couldn't get over how wasteful and time consuming some practices were. People were just set in their ways doing things the same as 20 years ago.

I've known some great cabinetmakers that had 20+ years experience and crown molding still bit them in the behind. I've taught high schoolers to hang it in an afternoon. Long story short, I think it's more about aptitude and not much about work history (the word "experience" implies you learned something).

I feel I've had some experience and a lot of work history. Eleven years in and I can't put a number on myself let alone someone else. I look through the Project Gallery here and see a lot of things I know how to make and a lot I would have to think about for a good long time before I attempted.

Most of us are not classically trained and would not fit into your system, in my opinion. It's not like the days of yore when a master took on an apprentice for indentured servitude.



From contributor A:
Skill standards can be found at woodworkcareer.org.


From contributor J:
It definitely doesn't come down to experience. I've worked alongside 20-year veterans that couldn't think their way through a basic project to save their lives (e.g. the incompetent employee happens to be the owner's old friend, and unfireable). Time may heal all wounds, but it doesn't make everyone smart. (On the other hand, maybe your system doesn't have to be perfect to have value...)

I think you might have to frame the category more narrowly than "cabinetmaker" before you can discern meaningful skill levels. Not every shop works the same way, or to the same standards. Work that's wastefully fussy in a price-driven shop will be scrapped in another that serves a more upscale clientele. One company will have embraced CNC machines, while another does as good or better work with older-school equipment. Some shops use an assembly-line-like approach, encouraging employees to get very good at one small part of the larger process, while others structure their workflow for generalists. There are multiple intersecting spectrums here, not a single linear progression.



From contributor M:
Being skilled in the operation of machinery is only one part of the equation. Enough to make you a machine operator, not a cabinetmaker, or woodworker.

Design takes talent that has been nurtured by training, or experience, combined with communication skills, and sales experience to work with customers. At a minimum, even if the design work has been done by a third party, many of the same skills are required to take their work, and produce shop drawings.

Then project/business management comes into play. If you don't succeed with this, failure is almost certain. Material selection when dealing with solid wood is incredibly important. This takes both knowledge and experience.

I suppose the way modern machinery is set up, it doesn't take as much skill to do accurate work. However when it comes time to assemble, sand, and prep parts for finishing, skill and experience come into play again. Finishing is a whole new ballpark in itself.

And finally installation is its own specialty. Doing accurate work out in the field, when nothing is square or level, with contractor tools, is difficult. As a cabinetmaker, I have a lot of respect for great finish carpenters and installers.

Systems to rate one's skills perhaps apply more to employees who you would expect to run machinery, and take on some other tasks. However, a cabinetmaker is best judged by their portfolio, and past experience as a business owner or project manager.



From contributor P:
I find it interesting that 3 out of the 4 responses talk about skills that are not the technical skills but the soft skills. With technology changing at an ever faster pace, it would appear the ability to learn, change, communicate, get along, work hard, would be ever more important skills?


From contributor N:
There have been more than a few interesting discussions on this topic. "Skill" is tossed around very loosely by both employers and employees. It comes down to how an individual shop operates. The diversity in types of work (commercial and laminate work vs. custom face frame residential, for instance) has everything to do with a candidate's ability to succeed, along with other factors (such as ability to communicate).

All employers are looking for that magic bullet of an employee and are consistently disappointed when the new hire lacks in any given area. I had a recent experience wherein the boss and part owner explained (after two hours of layout work ) that X detail should have been held back 1 inch (this was omitted on the drawing), therefore making the entire layout incorrect. "That 1 inch is a given," was the explanation from the boss. In my experience, nothing is a given - that is why there are drawings. The drawing is how you communicate with the builder, and if that builder knows anything, it's never to assume anything.

So you see, in the eyes of the boss, the wasted two hours of layout time was due to incompetence, when in actuality it could have been avoided with simple communication. The point being, as all shops operate differently, a candidate may be successful in one environment and falter in another.

Something to consider when evaluating a new hire's abilities - is the nature of the shop, when compared to the worker's experience, essentially setting up the worker to fail?



From the original questioner:
Thanks for your valuable input. Basically, I agree with you all that it's very difficult to just assign certain skills to a level, and these skills will vary from person to person and shop to shop. I also agree with the idea that experience is not necessarily a direct correlation to skill - I've seen several 20 year veteran carpenters who couldn't hold their own against a 5 year veteran carpenter.

That said, I'm trying to develop a way to certify a person's skills remotely, in a way that if I were to send their resume to an employer, the employer would know for sure this person is very capable.

One avenue I'm exploring is the possibility of video submissions - a person videos themselves doing a handful of tasks in their trade and submits them to me (probably through something like vimeo or youtube) and I would have external people in the same trade determine whether or not the person in the video properly demonstrates the required skills.

I currently have a cabinetmaker in Texas with my video camera and am trying to figure out what I would like him to demonstrate. He is claiming a Skill Level 3 and has around 10 years of experience.



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