Ron Wanek is the founder and chairman of the world’s largest furniture manufacturer and retailer, Ashley Furniture Industries. With sales topping $8 billion, Wanek’s company has been an unqualified success.
Northeast Mississippi has been a beneficiary – and contributor – to Ashley’s growth. The company employs some 3,200 people at three facilities in Ecru, Ripley and Verona. The Ecru plant is the largest upholstered furniture plant in the U.S. Ashley’s economic impact in the state is more than $200 million a year. The company does business in 155 countries and has manufacturing and distribution facilities in the U.S. and around the world.
But even a company like Ashley has trouble finding enough skilled workers to fill the jobs that are available. Wanek says a major reason is that the emphasis in education has been misguided.
“Why do we have a skills shortage? For years and years, probably 30 years or more, schools have taught that it’s not great to have a skill, that you should get a degree,” Wanek said. “We didn’t emphasize those skills jobs, the jobs using your hands, for too long. Probably 50 percent of schools don’t teach what used to be called industrial arts, and that’s a shame.”