The flooring industry says education is key in closing the skills gap: Wood Cuts - 2017

By Brett Miller

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its Job Openings and Labor Turnover report. The results were shocking: the unemployment rate was at its lowest level since 2009, yet nearly 5.8 million jobs remained unfilled in the first quarter of 2017. 

To make matters worse, the U.S. Social Security Administration reports that 10,000 Baby Boomers-those born between 1946 and 1964-are retiring every day, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Millennials-those born between 1982 and 2000-will represent 50% of the workforce by 2018. Combine these statistics with a Forbes magazine article stating that 60% of new jobs will require skills held by only 20% of the working population, and the outlook is pretty grim.

This skills gap has been in the news a lot lately, especially as U.S. student debt continues to rise. Today, more than $1.4 trillion in student loans is owed by the U.S. population. Unfortunately, even with an advanced degree, many college graduates are not able to find work because they lack the skills needed to fill the available jobs. This leaves millions of jobs unfilled, particularly those requiring skilled labor. 

The flooring industry is doing its part to address this issue. Three years ago, a group of floorcovering associations formed the Floor Covering Leadership Council (FCLC) to identify key issues facing the flooring industry and to work collaboratively to develop solutions to resolve them. Overcoming the skills gap is a primary focus.

“One of the obstacles we have to overcome,” says Scott Humphrey, CEO of the World Floor Covering Association, “is the perception that jobs in the skilled trades are low-paying and dead-end. The problem is that high schools have been encouraging students to attend college, which is great, but college is not for everyone, and many students are graduating with a mountain of debt and no job. Even those who get jobs are often finding them outside their majors. I’m a good example. I was a music major, who paid a great deal to attend a private college for a degree I didn’t use. At the same time, Baby Boomers are retiring, leaving good-paying jobs in the skilled trades unfilled.” 

Humphrey’s assessment is spot on. In October, Adecco, a staffing company, reported that retirements will lead to 31 million vacant skilled trade positions by 2020. This situation presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the flooring industry, and training is the key.

During the past two years, FCLC members have worked collaboratively to develop training resources that can be shared among each group’s members. “One of the things we discovered when surveying our members,” explains Michael Martin, president and CEO of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), “is that they were installing a variety of flooring materials, not just wood. So while they were coming to NWFA for their wood flooring needs, they were likely going to other organizations for other products. Considering we all share similar issues when it comes to jobsite preparation, subfloors and the like, it just made sense that we work together to provide a consistent industry voice.”

Sales is one such topic. “We’re all working toward the same common goal, and that is to sell flooring,” says Kevin Gammonley, executive vice president of the North American Association of Floor Covering Distributors. “We needed to develop a way to reach sales associates engaged with selling a variety of different floorcovering materials. We also needed to ensure that we provided a consistent message that would improve the industry as a whole.”

TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION
While organizations like the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association already had online training available for commercial contractors, very few FCLC members had any formal programs in place for sales. “Therein lies the problem,” says Jim Hieb, executive vice president of the Marble Institute of America. “We all agreed that most flooring call-backs could be avoided at the point of sale, yet no consistent training was available specifically dealing with the sale of flooring. Many people think that sales are sales no matter the product, but our experience is that flooring sales require special knowledge. Environmental conditions, building codes, lifestyle-all these issues have to be considered when helping a customer select a flooring material that will perform well long-term.”

Education is the key, but getting a consistent message to all employees presents challenges. “It’s unlikely that a retail location is going to send its entire sales team to training at different organizations for different materials,” says Bart Bettiga, executive director at the National Tile Contractors Association. “But the group felt it was important to deliver training that was easy-to-use and affordable. Online training just seemed like the obvious solution.”

With that objective in mind, FCLC members both developed and expanded online education programs for the flooring types they represented. For its part, the NWFA developed its online content using what we already had: a successful and proven in-person training program. This included a face-to-face wood flooring sales program, and a Sales Advisor certification program through NWFA Certified Professionals (NWFACP). Previously, earning NWFACP Sales Advisor certification required attending in-person training. Now, certification can be earned online.

“Online training allows us to provide timely, accurate education in a way that is both affordable and convenient,” says NWFA’s Martin. “Now companies can offer comprehensive training for their sales teams, which can be completed at each individual’s own pace. What makes the program even more meaningful, though, is the digital badging component, which directly impacts our consumer search feature. It’s the first time we’ve been able to help our certified professionals reach consumers directly, which can impact their bottom line.”

Digital badges are a relatively new concept. They can be viewed as the modern version of a certificate of completion presented following traditional in-person training programs. The only way to share these certificates with others, however, was to physically carry them on appointments. 

Digital badges can be shared publicly on social platforms, websites, emails and more. In the simplest terms, digital badges are graphic images, but they are much more than just a pretty picture. Digital badges also contain metadata that verifies the recipient’s proficiency with a specific skill or area of expertise. This metadata can include a variety of information, such as the date the badge was earned, the third-party organization issuing the badge, and the specific skill or knowledge that was exhibited-confirmed through testing for the individual to earn the badge. In addition, these badges become part of a lifelong digital résumé, which makes them especially convenient for attracting customers.

NWFA’s online training program also includes a consumer-search feature. Consumers visiting our website can search for qualified flooring professionals based on their training engagement. Those who have not taken part in any training would be ranked at the bottom of the search. Those who have completed one online course bump up in the search, those who have completed several courses bump up further, and those who achieve Sales Advisor Certification will be at the top of the search feature. With the digital badges and supporting metadata accompanying the search, it provides an increased return on investment for training, as the consumer can see exactly how the individual has made a commitment to learning and increasing his or her professional expertise. The feature can even be accessed in the field when making sales calls using a mobile device. 

EDUCATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS
Online learning is just one component of addressing the skills gap, though. The industry also needs to overcome the negative stigma associated with skilled trades. NWFA is addressing this by partnering with vocational schools, technical colleges and adult training programs. Two such programs include Chattahoochee Technical College in Atlanta and Good Will Industries.

Four years ago, NWFA held its first training event at Chattahoochee Technical College. Students participate in a weeklong program designed to teach them the basics of wood flooring sales, installations, refinishing and repairs. Since its inception, nearly 300 students have taken part in this training.

NWFA has partnered with other FCLC members to offer training through Goodwill Industries as part of its adult education program. This program provides career opportunities to adults who are struggling to rebuild their lives and find meaningful employment. Plans are in process to expand the program into other parts of the country as well.

However, the flooring career road map does not stop or start there. Programs currently are being developed by NWFA to present flooring as a viable and stable career at all stages of a person’s educational and professional life. We have programs already being presented in grade school, ages five to ten. We have a pilot program launching this fall through the Boy Scouts of America in conjunction with wood skills merit badges and the Pinewood Derby, ages six to 18. We are sponsoring our first program through the nationwide Manufacturing Day this fall, ages 16 to 18. We are also working with Skills USA to provide vocational training in high schools and technical schools, ages 16 to 22. And we are working with the Association for Career & Technical Education to participate in pre-apprenticeship programs, ages 16 to 22, as well as working with the U.S. Department of Labor to develop a federally recognized apprenticeship program. 

Online learning is a great tool that helps our industry reach a larger audience, but it can never truly replace hands-on training for skilled professions like flooring, so it’s important that online learning platforms be part of a much larger effort to change the message about skilled trades in general. And it all starts with sales. It has been suggested that the vast majority of flooring failures could be avoided at the point of sale by recommending the right products for the right job, environment and lifestyle, so providing the training needed to make that possible just makes good business sense.

More than 13,000 skilled trade jobs were listed on a popular job search engine earlier this year. With numbers like these, it seems obvious that the skills gap is not going to be eliminated overnight, but by working together, as an industry, we can provide job seekers with the training they need to find steady, good-paying jobs and help job posters find qualified, skilled craftsmen and craftswomen to fill their staffing vacancies. 

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus