By Rich Christianson

Funny, I didn’t know that Nancy Fister is a trained woodworker and plays the ukulele.

But I do know that the Nancy Fister I first met 15 years ago was an invaluable asset to the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Suppliers (AWFS) and to industry. As AWFS Education Director, she did a yeoman’s job of orchestrating the AWFS Fair College of Woodworking Knowledge and by extension became a staunch advocate of career technical education, including as a vocal supporter of the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America.

I learned about Nancy’s interest in woodworking, the ukulele and other passions during an exit interview I conducted a mere 10 days before her March 31 retirement from AWFS. Our conversation spanned not only highlights of her career but also her great hope that the woodworking industry can begin turning the tide on the serious skilled worker shortage it faces.

Following are excerpts from our conversation.

WCA PATHWAYS:  How is it you came to work at the Association of Woodworking & Furnishing Suppliers?

NANCY FISTER:  I was in the art museum world for a number of years and I was doing woodworking on the side. I made myself take a self-imposed sabbatical to do the woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods  in northern California. My instructor was James Krenov,  a crusty old master woodworker who has since passed away. I did the Redwoods program because I needed a break from art museums but after finishing the program I really didn’t think that I was up to the challenge of attempting to make furniture for a living. It was a creative sidestep and I still wonder about the logicalness of having done that. But it was a great, fun year.

While I was wondering, “What am I going to do now?”  I was talking with Bob Colgan of Cerritos College’s woodworking department, where I had once worked. Bob was a member of the AWFS Board of Directors in 2002 and he told me, “We’re creating an education position and I think it has your name on it.”

PATHWAYS:  Now knowing that you were a woodworker, were you blown away at the woodworking technology that you saw at your first AWFS Fair?

FISTER: To tell you the truth in those first couple of shows I didn’t get much show floor time because I was not only running the education program but also the student design competition. They were kind of at opposite ends of the Anaheim Convention Center and on different floors, so I was a bit of a basket case. I’m not quite sure myself how I did it.

PATHWAYS: Why do you think trade shows are a good forum for educational programming?

FISTER: Shows bring so many people together at one time. Our industry has so many small shops. The owners are wearing so many hats that they don’t get out of their shop very often. When they come to a show it’s the perfect opportunity to take in an education program that interests them.

The AWFS education committee has always done its best to have our finger on the pulse of topics that would be most useful for our attendee demographic. It’s not always necessary to focus on the latest, greatest thing if we think it’s something that would not be available for the owners and managers to actually be able to take back to the shop and implement right away.

PATHWAYS: What’s the secret to putting together an impactful woodworking seminar program?

FISTER: Even though we run about 50 seminars, we usually had close to 200 ideas. Input from attendees is extremely important because it’s kind of tricky to determine which ones will be the most popular and most practical. Topics like lean manufacturing, marketing – anything to do with making a profit – are always popular. That’s because so many woodworkers learned their craft from their father or started in a garage. But once they moved into a shop and hired their first employee they all of sudden have a need to run their business and market better.

PATHWAYS: You got involved with the AWFS Public Policy Committee after the sad passing of Bruce Valentine in December 2014. What did you like best about your involvement in public policy?

FISTER: Working with teachers I began to see the overlap with legislation and the need to lobby for public funding to support career technical education. I had great opportunities to meet with representatives both in Washington. DC on the national level and in Sacramento on the state level. When I would go to conferences of the California Department of Education there would always be talk about the Perkins Act and how it funnels money from Washington to the states for CTE.  Reauthorization of Perkins has evolved into the AWFS Public Policy Committee’s top priority.

PATHWAYS: AWFS and you personally have been tremendous supporters of the Woodwork Career Alliance. How do you view WCA’s role in helping the woodworking industry close the skills gap?

FISTER: When I first came to AWFS I would often hear people say that it’s too bad that our industry does not have skill standards. Now, because of the WCA, we do. It’s just wonderful to see the progress WCA has made – the way it has grown and developed.

We (AWFS) have taken every opportunity to share the WCA’s information with teachers and the California Department of Education. WCA is really doing the right thing for industry and industry really needs to support what they are doing. Woodworking companies, suppliers and associations all need to take a closer look at what the WCA is doing and get behind it. This whole movement of trying to bring skilled trades back and building public awareness of this movement is at a critical crossroads right now. More legislators recognize the importance of this movement because the shortage of skilled workers is impacting our manufacturing base and they finally understand that. And more schools are coming to realize that hands on classes like woodworking are an asset to STEM education. The two can work hand in hand.

I think many schools struggle to find ways to reach out to industry and industry struggles to reach out to schools. They are both missing out on the connection that could lead to careers for kids and fill jobs for employers. The only way we’re going to get over that hurdle is for everyone to pay attention and get involved. SkillsUSA is another opportunity. I don’t know how many people in our industry really know what SkillsUSA is but they should know. There are SkillsUSA competitions going on locally, regionally, nationally and internationally for cabinetmaking and woodworking. The student contestant could always use the support of local companies. Only by lending their support are woodworking companies going to develop a healthy pipeline of new workers.

PATHWAYS: A couple of years ago, AWFS launched the “Meet the New Face of Manufacturing” campaign. How does that tie in with the association’s career and technical education advocacy?

FISTER: One of the things we’ve been working really hard at is dispelling the out-of-date notion of what wood products manufacturing is. We need to get people, including students, parents and guidance counselors, to understand that today’s woodworking shops are high tech. We have jobs for people that have an aptitude for software and design.

Our first posters and our New Faces video were big hits. It’s great to show kids examples of young people in industry that are making a living in woodworking and loving it. The next phase of the campaign will showcase how woodworking careers support young peoples’ lifestyles. Marketing plans include advertising in education counselor magazines because they have so much influence on many students’ post-high school choices.

PATHWAYS: What are some of your fondest memories and what will you miss most after serving 15 years with AWFS?

FISTER: There are many, but for me the day Adria (Salvatore) stepped in the door has to be number one. I can’t even imagine what the last 10 years would have been like without her. She has such an incredible work ethic and is so easy to work with. I learned quickly that while I was technically her supervisor, she didn’t need to be managed. We really just became coworkers regularly bouncing ideas off each other and helping each other. The AWFS education is in great hands.

Working with the Education Committee I got to work with a lot of great people like Larry Hilchie and WoodLinks. The people who have been involved with the AWFS Education Committee over the years have been really great and fun and I really admire that they understand the value of education. One truly outstanding volunteer is Saul Martin, who works for an architectural woodwork company in the Los Angeles area. Saul approached me at one of the shows about 10 years ago and said very shyly he was interested in education. Since then he has donated so much time helping with Fresh Wood Student Design Competition and the SkillsUSA cabinetmaking and woodworking competitions both in the Los Angeles region and the state competition and has made sure they align with industry best practices.

There are a lot of people I will miss. The art world was a lot of fun but the people in the woodworking sector are such down-to-earth, good-hearted regular folks that I really like. I quickly noticed how much passion so many people have in this industry.

PATHWAYS: So what’s the next chapter for Nancy Fister?

FISTER: I’m looking forward to taking some time off and giving more consideration to what I want to do. I became a certified yoga instructor and I’m teaching a Saturday morning class; maybe I’ll do more.

I also took up the ukulele and get together with other musicians through Meetups. It’s great fun.