By Jack Weatherly
A few years ago, the Chinese might not have been the kind of trade partners you wanted if you were in furniture manufacturing in Mississippi.
That’s because the communist nation was selling goods in this country cheaper than they could be made in the United States.
Consequently, the industry —suppliers and manufacturers — in Mississippi felt the impact.
From a peak of 31,600 workers in 2000, employment fell to 17,600 by 2009, according to Bill Martin, director of the Franklin Furniture Institute at Mississippi State University.
Meantime, Chinese manufacturing wage earners’ income has grown threefold in the past decade. And with its increase in disposable income is, among other things, a stronger demand for American-made furniture, he said.
“American furniture has become a status symbol and now the middle class has got money to pay for it,” he said.
Consequently, Mississippi’s furniture-making employment has stabilized. The Franklin institute estimates that by mid-2014 it had climbed to 18,700.
The state’s rebound is reflected in export figures.
Mississippi furniture exports to China totaled $2.6 million in 2014, a leap of 40.3 percent from the previous year, said Tracy Diez, executive director of the Mississippi World Trade Center.
Exports of furniture made in the state and sold worldwide reached $161.4 million last year, an increase of 4.93 percent, Diez said.
The average annual wage of a Mississippi furniture employee stood at $30,600 as of the first quarter of 2013, though figures for 2014 are due out soon.
“It’s hard work, but you can make a good living at it,” Martin said.
American furniture manufacturing wages have risen 27 percent in that period, Martin said, helping to hold down the price of American goods.
Demand from the middle class has also driven up costs for manufacturers in China, including for so-called kits, or upholstered components.
So American manufacturers, which import the kits, are looking for places to make furniture at a lower cost, he said, whether it’s in Mexico, South America, Vietnam or South Korea.
A Chinese delegation will attend the Tupelo Market Feb. 4-6, offering Mississippi furniture manufacturers a chance to expand their markets, Martin said.
Tupelo is the capital of the furniture market in northeast Mississippi. The industry dates itself from 1948, when Morris Futorian, a Russian immigrant started a two-person manufacturing shop in New Albany.
Some members of the delegation will visit with Mississippi lumber producers to possibly import that raw material, Martin said.
The Mississippi Development Authority’s International Trade Office, Tupelo Furniture Market and China National Furniture Association arranged the visit.
As a sign of reinvigoration, United Furniture Industries announced Monday it will start manufacturing operations in the former Lane Furniture facility in Verona.
The project represents a $2.75 million corporate investment and will create 300 jobs, bringing the company’s total employment in the state to between 1,800 and 2,000. United Furniture has operations in Amory, Hatley, Nettleton, Okolona and Vardaman.
“We plan to begin some production in mid-February and are looking to start hiring in the next few days,” United Furniture Chief Financial Officer Doug Hanby said in a release. Applications can be submitted online at UFIjobs.com or in person at Amory.
The Mississippi Development Authority awarded the manufacturer a $500,000 grant for building modifications through the ACE program; training valued at $801,500 will be carried out at the WIN Job Center in Tupelo.
The company — whose brands include Simmons, Beautyrest and Hide-A-Bed among others — was formed in 2000 and has undergone expansions and now operates in more than 4 million square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space in Mississippi, North Carolina and California.
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