Table of Contents
HED//Building the Future
DEK//Simmons Quality Home Improvement finds skilled employees with help from Alphacam, Cabinet Vision and Norwich Technical High School
Any way you slice it, today’s woodworking professionals don’t have it easy.
Remaining competitive while producing products on par with the craftsmanship of yesteryear is no simple feat, but many find that implementing new technologies supports them in turning profits without sacrificing quality.
For Mike Simmons, owner of the Clinton, Conn.-based Simmons Quality Home Improvement, employing skilled staff who know how to maximize those technologies is key to staying on top.
“Businesses like mine die on the vine when principals become antiques because the old guys don’t have any game anymore,” says Simmons, whose business turns 30 this year.
Born with a passion for woodworking, Simmons earned an engineering degree after high school and held down a government position before striking out on his own. He loves both custom woodworking and collaborating with customers, so his high-end custom residential cabinetry and millwork business is a perfect fit.
“We have great customers who have allowed us to build some really nice stuff, and that’s special,” he says. “The way the whole thing kind of started is that I would build a unique piece of furniture specific to the home— like a desk or cabinets — to go with the project we were building. All of the millwork that goes into our projects is done in-house.”
As a long-time woodworker, Simmons has seen drastic changes in the industry that led to the closures of much of his competition. Those who chose not to adopt CNC technologies, he notes, were unable to compete with those who embraced time-saving machinery and software.
“Today, you need to have CNC to survive,” he says.
In the early 2000s, Simmons acquired his first CNC router, as well as the Alphacam and Cabinet Vision solutions, by Vero Software, to program the new machinery. Simmons and his team use Alphacam to program complex, custom profiles, and Cabinet Vision to design and program custom cabinetry.
“Having the machine really took a big piece out of the mundane work of just making cabinet boxes,” he says. “We needed a skilled cabinet maker to cut out a box, and that doesn’t make sense, so we got a CNC router.”
Since implementation of the CNC machinery and software, however, Simmons has struggled to find employees adept at using them.
“We had always done our stuff old school and I was having trouble finding cabinet-making guys who could use the technology,” he explains.
Seeking a solution for his personnel challenges, Simmons attended an open house at the Norwich Technical High School, in Norwich, Conn., in the hope of finding a prospective new employee skilled in the use of CNC machinery and software.
As carpentry students at Norwich have been taught to use both Alphacam and Cabinet Vision since 2009, Simmons knew that the school would be a good resource for finding employees adept in using the software installed in his shop.
It was at the open house that Simmons met and gave his business card to future employee Nicholas Duval, a graduate of the school’s carpentry program.
Norwich Technical High School is ideal for “kids who are interested in being hands on and don’t want to go to college,” according to Norwich carpentry instructor John Kelly. The school offers academics, as well as programs for 13 different distinct career paths.
Carpentry, automotive technology, culinary arts, hairdressing and cosmetology, and computer-aided design and drafting are among the technology programs available.
“The basic premise of the program is residential construction,” Kelly says of the carpentry program. “We do, however, do a lot of in-shop production — cabinets, furniture, bookcases. In carpentry and cabinet making, especially, the skill set has changed. Employers need highly-skilled people with a lot of talents in a lot of areas.”
Kelly notes that there is “high demand right now for people who run CNC machinery and associated software,” and that schools such as Norwich are in need of business contacts in the woodworking community who will employ graduates and help them continue their woodworking education in the field.
Duval was hired by Simmons in January of 2014, and today divides his time at Simmons between working in the field and programming in the shop.
“For my first eight-hour day, I sat on the computer for four hours fixing issues they were having with the router,” says Duval, now 22, who also updated Cabinet Vision and got Alphacam working smoothly within his first two weeks on the job.
“A lot of my guys don’t even know how to turn the router on, and Nicholas can carve out a seahorse,” Simmons says, adding that Duval quickly became an indispensable member of the team because of his ability to maximize CNC technologies. He also holds his own out in the field.
“After three months, the guys were like, ‘Where’s Nick? Where’s the kid?’,” Simmons says. “He’s got a rapport with all the guys and he can make that router sing like no one else.”
For Duval, Norwich was the obvious choice.
“I was pretty much done with school – with math and English — and I was bored,” Duval says. “By eighth grade, I was in the top classes and wasn’t learning anything. I was leaving middle school, and knew that I didn’t want to go to a normal high school.”
At Norwich, the course load alternates between time in the shop and time in the classroom, learning academics. During his senior year, Duval spent a considerable amount of time programming with Alphacam and Cabinet Vision and cutting projects for real customers on a CNC router.
With a class limit of 18 and an average of 15 students per class, personal attention is abundant at Norwich.
For Duval, like Simmons and other career woodworkers, finding the balance and relationship between the old and the new is simply all in a day’s work. While Duval, a self-proclaimed “geek,” inherently understands the world of CNC, translating that knowledge into the production of high-quality products still requires learning from experienced craftspeople.
“I experience that firsthand at work pretty much every day,” he says, of the balance between old and new.
To Simmons, the man in charge of managing the best of both worlds, Norwich and the students it trains are creating a stronger, better workforce. As he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon, he’ll always be in need of skilled woodworkers.
“What’s really great about this program is that Nicholas came out with skills that he is able to use, while so many of his peers are struggling to find their way,” Simmons says.