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Furnishing a Future

A former executive coach turns his passion for woodworking into a skills training program that provides former inmates with life-sustaining jobs

A former executive coach turns his passion for woodworking into a skills training program that provides former inmates with life-sustaining jobs

It took Steven Greenberg four decades—from high school shop class through a long business career as an executive trainer—to follow his calling as a woodworker, designing and crafting bespoke furniture. But it wasn’t until last August that he found his true passion: Passing on that love of woodworking to Philadelphians looking for a way into the workforce.

Through his Furnishing a Future program—run out of Washington Avenue’s NextFab maker space—Greenberg runs an intense five-week program teaching students (many of them recently released from prison) the basics and not-so-basics of woodworking to turn them into skilled carpenters. And then he helps his new graduates find jobs—not jobs that will remain minimum wage jobs, either. These are life-changing jobs with a future: Even non-union carpenters could look forward to making more than $50,000 a year.

For Greenberg, carpentry and woodworking have been part of his entire life—it just wasn’t the career path he followed. Greenberg’s grandfather owned a furniture shop, and he spent much of his childhood playing around in its warehouse; as a young man, he worked with his grandfather, repairing furniture and crafting new pieces. He showed such a knack for it that his family encouraged him to go into the trade. At the time—in the late 70s—it didn’t interest him; instead, he went to college and went on to open up an international executive training firm called The Accent Group.

But he remained fascinated with woodworking. In his free time, he took classes, slowly improving his skills. Today, he’s a woodworking and carpentry obsessive, and says that sometimes he goes a bit overboard with what he produces.

How many items of furniture in his home did he make on his own?

“Oh, everything,” he says. “I think my wife’s sick of it.”

Greenberg, 58, sold his business a few years back, and has since moved into making his hobby his full-time vocation, selling cabinets and bookshelves through Custom Wood Concepts. In a sense, he’s finally found his dharma—“I’m doing what I always loved,” he says—and Furnishing a Future is his chance to spread the good word.

The idea for Furnishing a Future came through a set of natural circumstances. Greenberg had been working as a volunteer with the Philadelphia Furniture Bank, building and donating new furniture for families to pick up, free of charge. He enjoyed the work, and found some meaning in it.

Shortly after he began there, his daughter, who works in reintegration at Rikers Island prison in New York City, suggested that Greenberg start his own mentorship and reintegration program. She noted that while similar programs offer soft skills—basic etiquette, filling out resumes and the like—they lacked a hard skills component to accompany it.

Greenberg was just the guy to integrate hard and soft skills into one program: Not only had his company trained business executives how to thrive in international environments, he had been an educator on a voluntary basis and was well-versed in the hard skill of woodcraft.

“If these guys are trained in how to make a resume, and how to make it outside, but have no skills, they’re just not going to get a job,” says Greenberg.

So he began drafting the curriculum for what would eventually become Furnishing a Future, which he launched last August. Greenberg realized that practical math, a vital part of any reentry class, could easily be worked into a carpentry class—arithmetic and mental math skills are as vital a tool as any to the carpenter. The design of the program expanded from there. While teaching students life skills, Greenberg works in a full-on carpentry crash course, starting with the basics—the math, wood cutting, building a box—and finishing with more complex work, like making a table and learning basic commercial design skills. The final exam? Building a whole goddamn dresser from scratch.

Greenberg helps his new graduates find jobs—not jobs that will remain minimum wage jobs, either. These are life-changing jobs with a future: Even non-union carpenters could look forward to making more than $50,000 a year.

“Building a dresser is about as hard a thing as there is to do in carpentry,” says Greenberg. “If you can do that, you can do anything.” All the furniture made at Furnishing a Future is donated to the Philadelphia Furniture Bank.

Carpentry fills a niche in the American labor force, where there is a serious skilled labor shortage. Partly, this is a result of high schools that in recent decades have greatly de-emphasized vocational training. It has become a cultural constant that college is the only gateway to a well-paid career. Vocational schools, including in Philly, are often first to be closed in cost-cutting measures. But those who are not college (or college graduation) bound often take few workable skills away from their schooling. Simultaneously, workers unions are allowing fewer apprentices to join their ranks as union funding shrinks.

As Greenberg has found, there is a real hunger for training that can result in jobs that have a real future, even for those not headed for university. The 12 students Greenberg has worked with at Furnishing a Future were culled from dozens of applicants. They came to it from reentry programs like R.I.S.E., the Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services, Ready, Willing & Able, a Center City-based homeless shelter, and, often directly from the school district.

One of Greenberg’s students, 19-year-old Dajour Harrison, joined Furnishing a Future through a joint program run by the school district and the Philadelphia Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Harrison says he struggled academically in school, and knew he needed to work with his hands in order to spur his post-education career. Like so many others in his position, though, he didn’t find what he needed in school. After sparring a little with Greenberg early on—just kid stuff like inattention—he has since become a noticeably capable carpenter-in-training.

Greenberg was just the guy to integrate hard and soft skills into one program: Not only had his company trained businesses executives how to thrive in international environments, he was well-versed in the hard skill of woodcraft. “If these guys are trained in how to make a resume, and how to make it outside, but have no skills, they’re just not going to get a job,” he says.

“I’m not so much surprised that I can work with my hands so well,” Harrison says. “I knew that once I was shown how, I would have it. I did maintenance at my high school; I put furniture together for my grandma. But it was a surprise how fast I’m learning here. I learned to do all kinds of things I never could do before.”

That Greenberg’s graduates are now all gainfully employed as carpenters or woodworkers is as much a credit to Greenberg as to his students: Furnishing a Future has partnered with 25 businesses, from Ikea to local woodworking groups, to help find graduates jobs.

It is, Greenberg says, the most stressful part of the work. Some of Greenberg’s students have felony records; he’s even worked with a sex offender. It often takes some selling to find them a gig. “I call them all,” Greenberg says. “And believe me, they’re not always waiting with baited breath.” That they keep taking his calls is a sign of success: The new hires are skilled and able to learn.

The last 10 months have proven that Greenberg can make good on his promise of imparting woodworking skills and finding jobs for Philadelphians in need of both. Now he faces a conundrum: Greenberg hopes to expand his program, with more teachers and more students. But if Furnishing a Future continues to grow at its current rate, sooner than later it will need a new home outside of NextFab (which houses the program at a reduced rate). What’s more, Greenberg is concerned about his job placement rate. So far, he’s been able to find jobs for everyone he’s trained; but he worries that at some point, that well will run dry. He’s currently looking for new partners.

Greenberg is proud of his students’ successes, and particularly proud when his students show a natural affinity for woodworking, right off the bat. Sometimes, he says, they show more of an inherent knack for it than he did, with the ability to (for example) eyeball the difference between a half-inch cut and a five-eighths cut, without a ruler.

“It pisses me right off,” he jokes.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Furnishing a Future is a nonprofit. It is not. It also overstated the types of jobs Greenberg secures for his graduates. Those jobs may start at minimum wage, but because of the skills training, graduates have the potential to earn more than $50,000 a year.

Header photo: Steven Greenberg

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