There’s a sense of pride that comes with creating a piece of furniture from start to finish. For Vern Bergen, that feeling is what led him towards a career in cabinetry.
“When you build a house, generally you have 30, 40 people working on in. You can say, ‘I was a part of that house.’ But when you build a piece of furniture, you have all of it. You’ve done it all,” he says. “There’s a lot more detail involved.”
As an instructor in Red River College’s Cabinetry and Woodworking Technology program, Bergen helps students realize the satisfaction that comes with creating a piece of furniture, cabinetry or millwork, and teaches them the technological aspects of the trade. But he didn’t always think he’d end up working for the RRC.
Bergen, 45, first became interested in woodworking as a child; his earliest memory of working with wood is helping his dad, a carpenter, work on the family cabin at the age of eight.
Bergen attended a vocational high school where he took a dual diploma program in academics and carpentry. He then got a job in DeFehr Furniture’s Product Development department, which he loved.
“We’d be the first to build (a product) and we’d have to engineer it. We’d have to make sure it could go through the plants without a hiccup. We did the thinking so the plant didn’t have to.”
Many of his colleagues had their Red Seal in cabinetry, and their advanced level of expertise was obvious.
“When you’re working with all these journeymen [cabinetmakers], you notice the knowledge that they have. It goes beyond where we’re working,” he says. “For lack of a better word, it’s like they’re in the old boys’ club. I knew DeFehr, but they knew cabinetmaking. Big difference.”
Although obtaining his Red Seal wouldn’t have led to an increase in pay, a desire to learn drove Bergen to take the Cabinetmaker Apprenticeship program through RRC. At the time, he’d been at DeFehr for seven years – and had no intention of going anywhere.
“In all fairness, I never thought I’d ever leave there. I thought, ‘I’ll be here forever, and that’s fine.’”
Unfortunately, a week before he was to receive his Red Seal, DeFehr filed for bankruptcy and Bergen found himself without a job.
He decided to give himself some time off before looking for work, and went out of town for a few weeks on vacation; employers had another idea.
“When I came back, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it was like I had my pick of jobs,” he says.
Part of that is because both the RRC program and the Red Seal certification are so well respected.
“Employers really value the journeyman cabinetmaker… As soon as you become a journeyman a lot of opportunities open for you. In all fairness, this job that I have now [at RRC] would not have been available to me had I not been a journeyman.”
“My Red Seal is almost like a badge of honour,” he adds. “If I were ever to get a tattoo, I would get one of a Red Seal. I am very proud to be a part of the College.”
Bergen worked for a time installing kitchens, but when the position at RRC opened up he jumped at the opportunity.
“Being an instructor, you’re given more opportunities to help students. I want to give back what I’ve been given.”
The Cabinetry and Woodworking Technology program is different than the Red Seal program.
“I find the apprenticeship [program] is more learning the skills and how to apply them, where the technology part is ‘We’re going to give you a wide variety from all aspects of the trade.’ We’re more in-depth with the technology.”
Bergen says the Cabinetry and Woodworking Technology program is becoming increasingly popular.
“I’ve been there four years and now I’ve noticed from that first year until now, there’s been a bigger interest. And that comes from both sides – from students and also employers. I really see a big interest.”
Bergen is humbled to be featured in RRC’s current billboard campaign; the best part will be revealing the campaign to his father.
“My dad, who is 79, he does not have a clue about this [campaign], and he is very proud of what I’ve been doing. I’m taking him for a ride and I’m going to take him by [where the billboard is]…. And then he’ll look, and I will get a tear out of him. There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t tell me how proud he is [of me].”
Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)