The Success of CKCA’s Kitchen Cabinet Production Worker Training Program

The second iteration of CKCA’s Kitchen Cabinet Production Worker Training Program will wrap up early this December. The program has provided practical skills training for entry into the wood industry. It has been a real opportunity for locals and new Canadians to skill up and gain insight on working in cabinet manufacturing. I had the chance to talk with Chris Leonard, director of Kaizen Learning Partners B.C. and Cormac O’Reilly, Vice President at the Northwest Skills Institute, to find out more about the program and talk about the success they have seen in getting workers ready to join this sector.

Leonard, who is also a CKCA member and sits on some of their committees, explained that the genesis of the program came in addressing a problem altogether too common to CKCA members and many stakeholders in the wood industry: recruiting and retaining staff. It is a frustrating and confusing situation – new hires quit after a week, a day, or don’t even show up. To this end, CKCA partnered with Northwest Skills to develop an extended training program to ensure that students not only have the skills they would need to enter the industry, but a fuller knowledge of what working in a modern kitchen cabinet making facility would be like, giving them a chance to communicate with workers, owners, and managers. Potential employers could also have more confidence in bringing on staff who have gone through the course and have been exposed to the industry-specific environment.

A student learning from an online CNC program

Cormac O’Reilly handles all of Northwest Skills’ industry-ready employment training programs and explained that they met with members from the Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association in B.C. to do a needs assessment, resulting in a curriculum tailored to the industrial practices and demands of the CKCA’s members. This includes an introduction to online CNC programs and a section focused on Kaizen, a business philosophy emphasizing continuous, incremental improvement in every aspect of an organization, involving all employees.

Funded provincially through the Community Workforce Response Grants and hosted at Northwest Industries Association industrial training facility, the course includes an eight-week training period and a weeklong employment support services portion followed by job placement. During the eight weeks of skills training students learn first aid, WHMIS, how to use power tools, finishing and pneumatic tools, and importantly, are given the opportunity to repeat and practice building, measuring, numeracy, communication skills, and working in teams.

Tours are scheduled every Friday where trainees are exposed to different types of companies and potential opportunities. In particular, Nickel’s Cabinets and Sunrise Kitchens have been instrumental in opening their shops to students, along with donating learning tools and materials.

The first cohort started with 17 and ended with 15 people graduating. The two who dropped out found jobs around the seventh and eighth week of the training program. This is a common occurrence for these types of programs, says O’Reilly. The second cohort, and the final in the series for this iteration, will finish early December with 16 still in the training program.

O’Reilly says that it is satisfying to see the progress students make week to week in applying the skills that they’re learning.

“We’re also getting better and better in terms of the completion rates and things have been finetuned in terms of the content,” Says O’Reilly, “They learn some theory. There is theory that they need to do around safety, for instance, but then they get to apply those skills in the afternoon when they work on their projects.”

O’Reilly emphasized the role that Kaizen Learning Partners and Chris Leonard have played in the development of this program. “When doing our needs assessment, a lot of the companies were already doing Kaizen or interested in getting into Kaizen. Since then, we’ve included Chris’s piece in some of our other training programs.”

Leonard and Kaizen Learning Partner’s content is usually scheduled in the later weeks of the training period after students have picked up some practical skills and gone on some tours.

“The great thing about CKCA’s program is that Chris has been able to include an actual on-site project. This time around it was with Nickel’s Cabinets and that’s been really great,” Says O’Reilly. “Students learn the first four days about Kaizen, but then they actually go and do a practical application of the skills that they’ve learned that week with a company practicing Kaizen and see what that looks like. It also looks attractive for employers because this is another thing that they don’t need to provide training on. Those clients already get that, especially if they’re a company that already practicing lean or Kaizen, these employees can come in right away and start contributing, which is one of the biggest tenets of Kaizen – everyone needs to be heard from the operation manager all the way to the production person.”

Leonard explains that “the kitchen cabinet making industry is a very tricky business. Not only is it a high-mix low-volume business, but also the nature of the business – you’re trying to meet somebody’s expectations in constructing their ideal kitchen. And it’s a big purchase. It’s the same price that you would pay for a decent car.”

Leonard says that decisions made by designers translate and impact the production environment individually for every build. This results in a highly variable production process where complications are inevitable. “There are basic things that are the same, but it’s all those details that the customer sees and cares about that can go wrong: the finishes, the customization elements, the tone of the kitchen and all those things that make their kitchen special.”

Leonard explains that a key aspect of Kaizen is that it focuses on process enhancement, waste elimination, and standardization, fostering a culture of ongoing positive change. Ideally, an organization can train and empower employees so they could both, for instance, help support a countermeasure to get a new part done quickly and efficiently, and also be able to identify problem patterns and communicate or contribute to making sure that kind of problem doesn’t keep reoccurring.

“Employers recognize employees coming on board who are already looking at ways to make things easier and better and are able to use problem solving skills in a uniform way,” Leonard says.

O’Reilly explains some of the additional opportunities the program provides for new Canadians, “there’s a piece that we do at the end called Employment Support Services, and there’s content there, for example, about Canadian work culture that directly addresses some of the things that a new Canadian might not know, like for example, worker rights and responsibilities, WorkSafe BC, so that they feel comfortable when they go into a new place. But also, there’s content on job maintenance that we also do that last week of the training program.

O’Reilly also explains that for ESL/EAL students, the program is an opportunity to practice English in a manufacturing and woodworking environment, a daunting enough thing for English speakers new to the industry. “There are also communication skills throughout the training program. For some students, English is their second language. So, if it’s their turn as we roll out a team project for that week, and they have to take the lead, this gives them the opportunity to practice speaking, practice asking questions, practice writing, to hopefully make them feel a little bit more comfortable. If you’re in an environment where you have to speak English – and it is a nine-week training program, that’s a significant amount of time that you’re in an environment where you have to speak English on a daily basis – by the ninth week, we see a change and a difference. Their confidence comes out because they’ve had that opportunity to practice speaking. And it also helps them prepare for the interview that they’re going to go for that following week when they go for the job placement segment.”

Northwest Skills goes the extra mile beyond training for their clients to ensure their professional success.

“We get a lot of referrals from different community support organizations or immigrant support organizations, and we try to do a wraparound support for clients, we will try to refer them according to what they might require or what they might need.

“In general, when we screen and we meet participants for the first time, if they, for example, need childcare or they’re trying to get their son or daughter signed up for school, we’ll happily refer them along to get some support from another association or another organization.

Even though the program is coming to an end, O’Reilly says that Northwest Skills sees a demand for the training to continue. “We’re getting requests from other parts of BC, and also, I think CKCA would like us to now move into other provinces as well.”

“We’re excited about the potential, because we’ve already tested this project twice and we know that it works. We know that the systems we have in place in terms of recruiting and getting specific tools and equipment, and that can be done across Canada. We just need to really figure out what would be a specific area, for example, in Toronto or Alberta.”

“It always comes back to having support from a local base of employers that are interested in potentially hiring, touring, supporting those projects. It seems that there’s quite a lot of different companies in different parts of Canada that would be interested. It would just be a matter of getting those together, exploring the funding potential and then starting to launch.”

For the program’s final project, students are given parameters to draw up a budget, create a blueprint, and provide an estimate of how much time and the cost for their own custom project. The program admins then acquire those materials and students get to apply all the skills they have been learning up to that point.

If you need people, please let Northwest Skills know. They are looking for expressed interest from other parts of the country to see where they can set up another program.

You can contact Cormac O’Reilly at

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