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How Swyft is helping train the next gen of Upholsterers

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Ed Hawes
How Swyft is helping train the next gen of Upholsterers

At Swyft, we pride ourselves on the fact that our main factory facilities are based on the outskirts of Porto, Portugal. Boasting a rich pool of talented craftsmen and upholsterers, Portugal is the home of upholstery and furniture manufacturing, and acts as a perfect base for our manufacturing operation.

To keep up with demand, we continue to grow and expand our operations in Portugal. In September 2020, we had twenty five employees; we now have 80, with plans to double in size by the end of the year. With that in mind, we partnered with an upholstery college in the area to offer three month internships to their students – with a strong possibility for full-time hire at the end to all successful candidates.

We chatted to Paul Fieldon, Co-Founder and Director at Swyft, to learn more about the upholstery college, our partnership with them and a brief history of furniture manufacturing in Portugal.


Q: How are we involved with the upholstery college?

P:
The college specialises in upholstery and carpentry – they run courses on anything from CAD design through to the manufacturing of a product.

We are accessing the upholstery section of the college – the courses run every three months, where students are taught everything to do with the making of upholstery and bespoke furniture. They’re trained on sewing, cutting, bodywork, all the way up to the finished product.


Q: Why did we decide to team up with the college?

P:
We are looking for new talent to join the team, so we approached the college, who then interviewed us to understand who we are as a business – they obviously want to place successful students with companies who are of the right calibre.

The college programme itself runs for three months, once finished there’s a three month internship which is supported by the government, so all the students are placed in businesses. The student internships are funded by the government, but once finished we’re allowed to recruit from that point.

Due to Covid a lot of businesses have closed, so people are using the government funded and supported training programme to retrain. We offer up to ten places every three months for people to come through from the course, via the internship programme, and give them experience in the business. Those who are successful are given jobs.

We’re currently on our first round, so we’ve had three successfully come through the first programme. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant the course was extended to 5-6 months so people decided to leave and get jobs elsewhere. However, we’re expecting another round of students to come through in a month’s time – where we expect to hire around five or so.

Q: Do we have the capacity to continuously hire or put students through internships – with the possibility of a hire afterwards?

P: We’re currently at 80 staff and we need to get up to 150 come October, November. And, we’re getting additional building space from September 1st.

Using a mix of newly trained people from the internship programme, as well as a lot of internal training. We have people in the team who start in one area, they will then train up and end up as upholsterers, which is the highest paid role in the business. So, we do that internally, we do external through the college and we also recruit experienced people from within the marketplace.


Q: When hiring graduates from the upholstery college, what does their career path look like or can they go in any direction?

P: Yeah they can, so we have four interns at the moment. We have two who are going through the cushion filling, sewing upholstery path – and they will be learning skills on how to create the furniture itself.

We also have two who are on a leadership programme, so they’re doing management courses and are currently working on improvement programmes which goes towards their end of project coursework.

We have people who want to be brought in as team leaders; they go through a team leadership programme and then, if successful, will move through team leader, operations manager roles as we grow.

Q: How long does it take to become a full Upholsterer?

P: It very much depends on the person. We just brought somebody in who joined us three months ago on body work, they showed the ability to move to upholstery just from the way they moved and worked the product.

For others it might take longer, maybe six to eight weeks to be able to do some of our more basic products, and then others might take three to four months. But, to become an experienced upholsterer takes many years, upholstery is a skill where you never stop learning.


Q: Is Swyft implementing an apprentice scheme at the upholstery college?

P:
Yes. The college is looking at running courses specifically on our behalf for key areas, such as expanding the team leader programme.


Q: Are there many other companies that have this type of partnership with a college?

P: No, not as closely linked. There’s a lot of businesses looking for good people, the benefit we have is that we offer more than just ‘stand at a bench and work’. We have physiotherapists, a good environment with canteens, good spacing facilities between workstations, making for a good environment to be successful in. So, we’re quite an attractive business for the college to look at when placing students, they get a good reputation from doing so and so do we.


Q: How are we looking after the team in Portugal?

P: Good question.

We pay significantly above minimum wage across the whole facility. We also have salary bands which create fairness within the roles; they’re banded based on skill set and then within those bands, on experience.

We continue to offer additional benefits beyond traditional salary: we run a physiotherapist every two weeks, we have a counselling service, pension schemes, and private medical cover. All of which goes above and beyond what other similar companies in the area offer.

Health and safety is our number one priority. We’re about to hit 100 operational days without an incident which is really great for the industry, and is something we continue to strive for. For anyone who has tested positive during Covid, we pay their full salary for the period when they’re off. We don’t want them to feel they are suffering financially due to something out of their control. We do it so the team comes to work and feels confident and are therefore successful in what they do. As a result, our turnover rate is less than one percent, which is due to the culture we have and how we care about the team.


Q: Do you have any examples of upholsterers you’ve worked with who showcase the success of our work with the college?

P: We’ve only just started, but the college has visited, made sure the students are OK and toured the facilities. The college also shows the new students around so they can envision where they might be placed and to see the type of work that can be done.

Q: Upholstery college aside, do you have examples of employees that have worked their way up?

P: Yes, very much so, our employee number four and five are all still here. Since we’ve started the business they've become experienced deep button, bespoke upholstery. Also, seven of our current upholstery team actually started in cutting, body work or goods-in and have worked their way through the process to have then become skilled Swyft upholsters – half of our upholstery team is now internally trained.


Q: What is the history of Porto in terms of upholstery and manufacturing?

P:
Portugal is very well known for traditional industries: obviously Port wine, leather (Clarks shoes has a big facility here), cork and textiles.

Textiles is a large business in Portugal, especially in the north. The epicentre for textiles is about 40 minutes away from where we’re based. As a result of textiles being just around the corner, you’ve got an opportunity for a city which has a lot of highly skilled people to do furniture manufacturing. Therefore, attracting more people and businesses. For example, IKEA has their largest European manufacturing site a kilometre away from our current facility.

Wherever you drive in this area you pass upholstery factories, carpentry businesses, case good manufacturers, spray areas – literally, everything to do with furniture manufacturing is here.


Q: Are there other hubs within Europe and how do they compare?

P: Yes. Poland, Romania – Romania does a lot of upholstery. The UK has its upholstery hub, but it’s a little more spread out. Spain does a lot of garden furniture. Whereas, Italy is very well known for high-end design.

Portuguese as a nation are very hard workers, there’s a lot of owned businesses because with upholstery you can run your own business, get a few clients and do very well. The biggest challenge is always how to market themselves further afield than just Portugal.


Q: Have you seen any major industry change in the area?

P:
No, the big industry change in Portugal was in 1988. They received a huge amount of EU funding for road infrastructure – prior to that all the roads were cobbled. To go to the textiles zone was a two hour drive from Porto, whereas now it’s about 40 minutes. It’s opened the country up significantly.

Along the new motorways, big business would build, supporting a plethora of new businesses and as a result, creating a whole new economy. There‘s more and more local and foreign investment coming through. So, yes over the years it’s changed quite a bit.

The EU has made a big difference to the Portuguese economy. There is also an EU funding programme called Portugal 2020 which allows companies to borrow funds for growth projects, generating a lot of investment for equipment, machinery and buildings within the area.

Q: One last question, do we have any plans to use traditional or handcrafted crafts?

P: We’d love to make an environmental, sustainable sofa which would require more traditional methods in manufacturing but it’s just in the early design phase at the moment.

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