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Andy Solter pieces together next career choice

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, at 1:31 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, at 2:38 p.m.

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Correction: Middle school students in the GEAR UP program headed by Andy Solter saw an average one-point improvement in their grade point average in the first year in 1999. A previous version of this story incorrectly described students’ academic improvement.

Andy Solter laughed and shrugged when asked what his herky-jerky career choices have in common.

His latest is hand-made wood furniture with a strong artistic bent at Andy Solter Woodworks, 251 N. Cleveland, which he opened in April.

Before that, he was interested in career development. Before that, education. Before that, drug prevention. Before that, construction. Before that, hats.

Solter, 67, started woodworking in his garage a few years ago after handing his Kansas Career Pipeline operation over to the state of Kansas in 2009. The website, which still operates, seeks to find out what jobseekers’ interests are, what jobs would be appropriate for those interests – and what education or training is needed to connect the two. The site is at www.kansascareerpipeline.org.

He was close to retirement at that point and so felt no pressure to find high-paying work. The woodworking bug hit him, he said, when he visited a friend in the Goddard area who had a sawmill. He stepped on a slab of oak lying on the ground, looked down at its rich color and dense grain – and fell in love.

“That was it,” he said. “And then when I built that first table, the pattern just spoke to me.”

Business so far has been good, Solter said. He has a nice website at http://www.andysolterwoodworks.com/, of course, but the real secret has been the personal relationships he has built up over the years. Word got out that he was starting a business, and several people have sought out his unusual furniture.

He has worked with a trusted business adviser and drawn on the expertise of the Sunflower Woodworkers Guild. Two of his pieces are currently showing in the Commerce Bank building at the Waterfront.

“You have to be detailed, focused, patient and understand the wood and how it works,” he said.

Building furniture seems far from career development. Kansas Career Pipeline grew out of an earlier job when he met business leaders, particularly former Chamber president Bryan Derreberry, who were interested in smoothing the connection between job seekers and employers. He actually appeared in front of the Legislature in 2006 to request money and got $400,000 and nearly that much from businesses. In 2007, he got another $400,000 from the state and some business money. By 2008, though, his backers had lost interest in training more workers.

From 1999 to 2006, he had developed and run GEAR UP – short for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs – a program at West and North high schools and Hamilton, Alcott and Marshall middle schools to raise students' grades and parents' interest in their kids' education.

And five years before that he worked with a regional drug and alcohol prevention program for youth. In that role, he was a key organizer in the now-gone Eclipse Teen Center in the Delano area.

That all came after 18 years as founder and owner of Sunrise Construction. One of his most notable local projects, he said, is the now-gone Portobello Road restaurant on Kellogg at Bluff, before Kellogg was widened.

And he began his career as a salesman for a hat company in Dallas.

So, what ties these all together?

“I’ve got a short attention span, five years is the most I can do, apparently,” he offered, with a laugh.

But later, after he had given it some thought, he said the common thread was people.

“My life is built on relationships, not just with people directly, but work that involves people, like in woodworking,” he said “There is nothing more exciting to me than sitting down with a somebody to talk about what they want with a project and then, with my skills, making it happen.”

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