Elevating Installation: To solve the installation shortage, the industry must unite

By Jessica Chevalier

 

There is no doubt that the shortage of qualified installers in the floorcovering industry is daunting in its scope, for two reasons. First, because it is, essentially, a problem that extends coast to coast. And second, because solutions to this industry crisis require the cooperation of all industry stakeholders, and perhaps even entities outside the industry. 

It is further complicated by fact that what the industry needs isn’t simply more installers, it’s more knowledgeable, professional and skilled craftsmen. But craftsmen start, of course, simply as installers: installers with a hunger to learn and an eye for detail; installers who can endure the unsteady paychecks that come with spending a career as a contract laborer; installers who are willing to take on physically demanding work, often without an employer subsidizing health insurance; installers who have skills in running a business and a commitment to professionalism; installers who view floorcovering installation as a vocation and have the goal of achieving the craftsman level.

Of course, in the big picture, the solutions are pretty straightforward: reward good work and thereby attract more individuals to the industry; educate installers in the best techniques; and let installers know that they are part of an industry that values their time and talents. But none of those things are nearly as simple, or as straightforward, as that sentence makes them sound. 

THE VALUE OF VOCATION
As has been widely reported, industry leaders believe a significant portion of flooring installers left the industry when work was hard to come by in the recession. These installers went on to other fields and, one can only assume, have seen no incentive to return to the trade as of yet. Since installers are contract workers, many of whom are transient, it is nearly impossible for anyone to pinpoint how many installers the industry lost. But as Jim Walker, founder and CEO of Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI), travels the country installing floorcovering, speaking on the subject and conducting training seminars, he estimates that the number might be as high as 30%. 

However, Doug Chadderdon, COO and managing partner of Great Floors, which has 18 locations in Idaho and Washington, believes that the problem is larger than the loss of a single group of installers. “Most installers start out as a helper and learn the trade from a seasoned pro,” he explains. “In the last several decades, it was usually their father, a relative or friend. Clearly, fewer young people [today] are looking at flooring installation as a vocation. It is a shame because they can make as much as a carpenter or electrician and, in some cases, as much as an engineer.” Chadderdon notes that his firm has several employed installers, and provides a helper who is basically an apprentice to learn the trade, adding, “About 50% stay on and continue in the business once they are trained.” This low retention rate seems to indicate that too many would-be installers are unable to see the long-term value potential in the field. 

That belittled perception of the value of installation plagues installers in the field as well. Says Walker, “All an installer has to sell are his time and talents.” Unfortunately, many are more than willing to vend these commodities for a dollar less than the next guy in order to win a job. “Most installers, but not all, don’t have the business skills to run a business profitably,” Walker reports. “I often ask, ‘How do you know how much to charge?’ And the answer is simply, ‘The guy down the street is doing it for $3.00, so I’ll charge $1.75.’” That being said, one of the greatest hurdles the industry faces is teaching installers to value their own work. 

While that may be where the race to the bottom for installation pricing begins, that is certainly not where it ends. That fact is, if customers—be they homeowners, retailers or contract dealers—demanded quality work rather than cheap work, the penny-less game wouldn’t play out. However, on the residential side of the business, consumers typically don’t know enough about floorcovering installation to demand quality. Sure, they may, at some point, have seen or experienced the results of poor installation, but that doesn’t mean they know the right questions to ask or the right skills to demand the next time around. 

What’s more, the big boxes frequently offer free installation as an incentive, which devalues the trade in the eyes of the consumer. Independent retailers are in an uphill battle to combat this perception. How much, after all, can an independent retailer charge for a service that their competitor is “giving away” next door? Mind you, there is no free installation; the big boxes are simply embedding the cost elsewhere. But that doesn’t change the emotional response it carries when customers see the zeros next to “installation” on their bid. Of course, good retailers have their sales teams trained to explain to customers that free installation isn’t as glorious a deal as it seems, but those explanations can only come once the customer is in the door. 

Commercial work carries additional challenges. First and foremost, jobs are larger and more expensive—which is a downside if a business operation is disrupted due to shoddy work—as are repairs and expectations. Harold Chapman, president and CEO of Bonitz—a commercial contractor with operations in five southeastern states—reports that the shortage of installers has been plaguing his side of the industry for years. He says, “You can always find a person that calls themselves a flooring installer, but if you are talking about experienced, commercial, highly trained, skilled craftsmen, then, yes, there is a shortage. No matter if you are in Atlanta, Georgia or Roanoke, Virginia, the dilemma is the same. 

“Like most commercial contractors, our installers are traditionally subcontractors. We knew there was a shortage of qualified installers in the early ’90s, especially with all the new vinyl products and specialty flooring products starting to emerge, so we decided to hire associates that we could train and educate to work as our in-house crews. Today, we have a blend of in-house and subcontract labor. To address the need or shortage, we will hire a new person, and they get whatever the industry and manufacturers offer as training, then they are placed with one of our experienced lead mechanics. At the same time, we are always looking for additional quality subcontractors.”

Chapman goes on to explain that it’s not only the flooring industry that is lacking skilled labor. All construction related businesses are suffering shortages, as today’s young people are less interested in physical labor. Some theorize that careers in technology are simply more appealing and, in addition, offer a more dependable paycheck. 

In Walker’s view, it’s about knowing more than flooring; it’s about knowing customer service. “We can’t elevate the industry until we teach installers that they can’t show up in flip-flops with a door hanging off their truck,” he says.

EDUCATION ELEVATES EVERYONE
Walker, Chadderdon and Chapman all believe that education will play a significant role in solving the installation crisis. They have different ideas about how to do this—and through what entities—but across the board they believe that there must be a means of separating experienced craftsmen installers from every Joe on the street, who, as Walker says, owns a utility knife, knee kicker and electric tacker, and believes that qualifies him to take the title of floorcovering installer. 

For many years, Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI), a leader in certification in the flooring installation industry, has offered programs at its headquarters in Kansas City under the name American Floorcovering Institute; however, many potential installers simply can’t afford the time and cost of spending weeks away from home for education. As a result, CFI is now in the process of establishing programs across the country to train installers, which is, of course, a costly endeavor. Walker has the goal of opening schools in the cities of Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, New York and Seattle, as well as somewhere in California. Says Walker, “We can do this now because people are willing to help [subsidize the programs] due to the crunch. We want to take training to the masses.” The World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) is one of the organizations helping to subsidize these new endeavors, he reports. Walker’s programs typically consist of a week’s training followed by placement as an assistant to a certified flooring contractor. 

The International Standards & Training Alliance of Floorcovering Professionals (INSTALL), created by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ International Training Fund, is also certifying installers. INSTALL’s indepth program requires four years of study, and only INSTALL members may participate in the program (see box on page 80).

Chadderdon believes that vocational schools—which teach trades such as plumbing, masonry, building trades, cosmetology and auto repair—would be great vehicles for producing qualified installers and raising the level of installation in the country. “I strongly believe our vocational schools need to offer programs that provide training for floorcovering,” he says. “We do it for carpenters, electricians and plumbers, why not carpet installers or tile setters? I hope that someday we will see a nationwide program for high school students to be trained at vocational schools around the country for floorcovering installation careers. We could use some help from the federal and state governments to get this done.” These programs could also help train student installers in basic business practices and conduct to further equip them for success. 

Walker and Chadderdon both believe that the mills also need to take responsibility for educating installers. Walker notes, “Some of the big mills spend more money on spilled drinks at a party than they do on installation over the course of a year.” Walker says that the mills offer installation classes in Dalton, Georgia and sometimes take these classes around the country, but he believes installation education needs to be a focus for the mills, not an incidental. 

Chadderdon adds, “This is a burden that has to fall squarely on the manufacturer. When new product is introduced, the manufacturer needs to train and certify the installers. Thankfully, most new introductions are easier and less complicated than the items they are intended to replace.” 

When training organizations do get installers in the classroom, Walker believes they need to be teaching installers to know products and access information, not just offering hard and fast rules that fail to translate from one product to another. As an example, he says that many installers are taught that all tufted carpets should be stretched 1% to 1.5%. “That’s an impossible statement,” he notes. “Every carpet is different.” Alternatively, if installers are given more of a “liberal arts” approach to education, they will be assured greater success in the long run.

Chapman agrees that offering installers access to information is one of the most important keys to success, “To start with, there needs to be a benchmark or guidelines, such as the proposed ANSI 600, so that everyone understands the correct and proper way to install products. There has to be better training available from manufacturers, network groups such as Starnet and other organizations.”
Walker says that when he asks a roomful of installers, approximately 30 to 40, how many of them have had professional training, often not a single one will raise his hand.



TRAINING AND THE UBC

Anyone with a knowledge of floorcovering installation, be they friend or foe of unions, acknowledges that there is no training as rigorous as what is offered by the likes of INSTALL with the full weight of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters behind it. In addition to floorcovering installers, the UBC, which boasts nearly half a million members in North America, also represents general carpenters, millwrights, roofers, millworkers, cabinet makers and several other trades. It has 3,500 instructors and more than 200 training centers across North America. The trainers get trained at the International Training Center in Las Vegas, a massive $250-million campus that includes two enormous training shops, its own hotel and a cafeteria.

The curriculum for INSTALL’s four-year apprenticeship program of hands-on and classroom training is based on the UBC’s International Training Fund, and is constantly updated by experts from manufacturers that support the program, which includes all the top domestic flooring producers. Also, its standards are regularly reviewed by the U.S. Department of Labor as well as Canada’s provincial labor departments. 

Currently, there are 6,519 INSTALL journeymen, of which 2,645 have earned INSTALL certifications. These numbers don’t include apprentices or retirees. For the last two years, INSTALL has also been offering a warranty program on the labor of its INSTALL Certified Contractors, and so far there are 23 INSTALL Warranty contractors.  


ENACTING AN OVERHAUL
Walker believes that all installation problems could be solved within six months if flooring manufacturers were willing to implement the practice of placing, on the back of every flooring product, a label stating that they recommend installation by a certified installer. He concedes that this would hurt sales in the short term but believes it would also send a clear message to the consumer that installation is a complex process and one worth investing in. 

Then, after three years of carrying that messaging, Walker recommends that the mills change the message to say that the flooring must be installed by a certified installer. He believes that this approach is critical for wood and ceramic, which are not forgiving products if improperly installed. 

Says Chadderdon of the idea, “We try to use certified installers when possible and even offer them a higher rate. There was momentum for this a decade ago, but the importance of the certified installer has fallen in the eyes of the consumer. I think it is a great idea and fully support it, but until there is some backbone behind it (e.g., limited or no warranty without a certified installer), it gets lost in advertising and, in particular, by the big box stores.”

In addition, Walker believes that every retailer should offer in-store samples of different installation methods with corresponding prices so that customers can see the difference between what he calls hack-and-slash work and good installation and, thereby, make a decision about their floorcovering investment with some knowledge behind them. And, of course, some portion of homeowners would certainly choose higher quality installation work if given the option, which would, presumably, help elevate the industry standard and pay grade.

Both Chadderdon and Chapman believe that one of the most important tools for the commercial contractor or retailer is the installation or project manager. “We have an install manager at each location to inspect and review each installation, but that is separate from training.” 

Chapman adds, “Professional project managers can really make a difference here.” These individuals make sure the installer’s work is up to par, and, using this internal checks and balances system, defuse or fix problems before they become a headache for customers.

OFFERING A CAREER, NOT A JOB
All of the individuals with whom we spoke agree that rewarding those installers who do the best work will benefit—financially and otherwise—the industry overall. “I think that the first thing we have to do is to get the wage scale up,” says Chapman. “Unfortunately, there will always be installers who will do the work for a penny less. That’s the reason that the wage scale has not improved like it should have over the years. To some degree, flooring contractors are a part of the problem as well. We pay all subs the same amount of money no matter their skill level, and we usually put our best installers on the toughest jobs. Secondly, we need to recognize quality work and reward accordingly. If an installer is good at what they do, they should be referred to as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan.’ Thirdly, and the union shops do a pretty good job with this, young installers need to have a career path spelled out for them. And, finally, we need to have regional and national competitions. I know there are a few of those, and I remember when the WFCA sponsored a competition at Surfaces each year, but I would like to see more competitions locally, so young folks could get recognized for their achievements and feel proud of their work.”

He further adds, “It’s not just compensation; it’s also insurance and benefits. We need to make sure that all associates, no matter the job position, have the benefits they need to take care of their families and their futures. We have a bonus program for our installers. If they perform well and bring the job within budget, then they can earn a bonus on that job. I think it is also very important that recognition be done as soon as possible. We also have a program where, if at any given time we see someone going above and beyond the call of duty, they are recognized and given a special coin that can be turned in to receive extra pay.”

Ultimately, bringing installers in-house as employees is a great way to guarantee the laborers have what they need, and, what’s more, it offers benefits for the retailer or commercial contractor. If the workload slows, however, these employers can get stuck paying crews that they aren’t able to put to use. Still, for some retailers and contractors, the long-term benefits for both parties outweigh the risk. Chapman explains, “The first advantage would be that you keep that subcontractor from working for your competition. The second would be to garner their knowledge so that they can help train new installers. One advantage for the subcontractor in becoming an employee is the benefits. The other is that they don’t have to worry about payroll, taxes, insurance and keeping up with social security payments. Another is that, as they age, they can get off their knees and do something else, such as project management, estimating or training.” 

Walker sums up the installer’s value as “the most important product that the retailer has to sell.” And he asks, “Why can’t they see that?”



PASSING BLAME BENEFITS NO ONE

Impacts from the installer shortage extend from the mill to the consumer. With too few installers in the field, retail customers often experience significant wait times for their flooring to be installed. 

Sometimes when a customer receives a long estimated wait time from a retailer, they will terminate their relationship with that retailer and find another, says Jim Walker, CEO of CFI and a veteran installer with 50 years of practice under his belt. For that reason, Walker says that retailers have learned to deflect blame onto the mill in order to keep the customer in their good graces, “The ‘smart’ retailers will put blame on the mills, saying that the product is back-ordered, to hide the true problem, but that’s not good for the industry either.” 

Passing blame down the supply chain may win that retailer a sale, but, ultimately, it does not benefit the industry. For many homeowners, purchasing new flooring is a daunting process. Negative experiences or impressions only serve to make it more so. 



Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 


Related Topics:Great Floors, Fuse Alliance, Fuse, Starnet