As a former instructor at Cheryl Strickland's Professional Drapery Workroom School and as a business consultant to workrooms and decorators, I can tell you that many women middle-aged and older are coming into the wholesale workroom industry as a second career. Many are leaving high-paying corporate jobs to start a business they love. The problem is they expect to receive $30,000 a year in salary (not gross!) starting out. Generally, that is not a realistic expectation. Maybe some college graduates can start in other industries at close to that, but we have no such college degree program available to the workroom industry.
To begin with, a one-person business can do only so much. New workroom owners who have not educated themselves in window covering fabrication from our many resources starting out at the entry level. They have to pay for an education and equipment, and work their way up the ladder just as in a major corporation. I think you can understand that, but there is another major problem.
Sadly, this problem is the same for interior designers and workroom owners: Rarely do either, even four-year degreed designers, have any business training. The point of owning a business is to make money! It's wonderful if you love your work because you then have the added bonus that it doesn't seem like work. But you must make money and you must be able to sell yourself and your product to the right market to succeed. You have to know how to run a business! Are you wholesale workrooms listening?
There also is a lack of young blood to replenish our industry. Why don't we have more young people coming into this industry? Three reasons:
1. They don't know how to sew. They never have been exposed to how pleasurable sewing can be! Schools, mothers and grandmothers are no longer teaching children to sew.
2. All children are being pushed to get a college education because it will enable them to make more money. Even when I was in high school—we won't mention when that was—this was the mindset.
3. Sewing and drapery fabrication is not perceived to be a lucrative career. Why would anyone want to go where the money is not?
WORKROOMS MUST MAKE MORE MONEY
In one of my previous articles, "History Doesn't Have To Repeat Itself" (See D&WC, April '2000), I explain why workrooms today are worth more and should be making more money for what they do. A history lesson doesn't help the crisis we are facing.
We have a booming economy. Designers and decorators are doing more business than ever before. I hear over and over that some of these professionals are complaining about the cost of fabrication and the long turnaround time. If selling fabric that retails for $100 to $200 a yard or more is acceptable, why isn't a higher fabrication cost acceptable? More personalized attention to detail and design goes into fabricating custom window treatments than into a machine-manufactured piece of cloth. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I always thought handwork and creative work was much more valuable and therefore more expensive. Currently, fabrication is usually a very small percentage of the total job. In reality, good quality fabrication should be a hefty part of the expense.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics just announced that, excluding the self-employed, the average U.S. worker earns $16.17 an hour. Many workroom owners don't even earn that. How can they hope to be competitive in the labor market to find good, capable and reliable help to reduce their turnaround time?
If workrooms don't start getting more money for their products and services so owners can make the comfortable living they deserve and be able to pay a comfortable salary to employees, they will not last long. In reality, the skilled seamstresses in custom workrooms should make better salaries than factory workers in a major manufacturing plant because they are skilled. They require more training and they have to think about what they are doing because each job is different. That takes far more skill than doing the same job every day of the working year. Just the fact that they know how to sew makes them worth more. Just being a good seamstress should be worth a starting pay of way more than minimum wage (currently $5.15).
I've seen and heard of too many workrooms that go out of business because they just don't know how to price or how to run a business. They don't make enough to live on and they just get worn out trying. Over and over I hear workrooms lament that they work around the clock or seven days a week because their designers just have to have their work by a certain date. Workrooms are just as deserving of a 40-hour work week as everybody else. As owners, they can choose to work less or longer for overtime pay.
It's going to take designers and workrooms working together and understanding each other to get through this crisis. Designers need to educate their customers that prices are higher because workrooms are far more educated and they are in short supply—it's the law of supply and demand. They also need to sympathize with and encourage the workrooms to make enough money to survive.
Designers must be understanding of long turnaround times and again explain to their customers that good custom workrooms are scarce and that they prefer to choose a good workroom that charges more and takes longer to fabricate to ensure they are getting the best quality.
Workrooms, you need to explain to the designers why your prices have to be what they are. Tell them about the equipment and education in which you have invested to provide them a quality product. Let them know how dedicated you are to seeing that their customers are satisfied and even thrilled the first time!
You must continually invest in education if you want to be worth the price you need. Explain why you can't find help to reduce your turnaround time and that you, as one person, can only do so much.
CHANGING THE WORKROOM PERSONA
There is more involved here than just workrooms making more money. The public has to be educated that the workroom industry is a viable money-making career. This education is going to be up to workrooms and designers. Both will have to proclaim the value and income potential of owning or working for a workroom.
First, parents have to be convinced that it might be a good career choice for their children. How many of you would encourage your children to become window treatment fabricators instead of computer programmers or doctors or lawyers? Hmmm? You might start by presenting programs to civic organizations. Most schools have career days and other opportunities to educate our young people on the potential of a career in window treatment fabrication. Teaching and speaking to scout troops would be another wonderful avenue to educate our children.
Granted, this will take years to accomplish, but we must start now! There will always be enough work to go around for workrooms. I truly believe that skilled workrooms are obligated to teach their skills and talents to the next generation. It's the way to give back to humanity for our brief time on this earth. It's a way to live on into infinity!
If designers and workrooms don't work together to understand their situations better and to help workrooms raise their perceived status and value in society, this crisis is only going to be that much more painful. Good custom workrooms are on the endangered species list. All of us have the responsibility to do what we can to reverse that designation before they become extinct. What are you going to do to help?
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.