Installer Certification - March 2008

By Brian Hamilton

It’s no secret that the biggest wildcard in any flooring transaction is installation, but until fairly recently very little was being done about it. Consumers, and even retailers and commercial contractors, often have no idea what quality of installation they will receive. Flooring installation, like other building trades, is an industry that has virtually no regulation. Anyone can call himself a flooring installer, even if he’s never used a carpet stretcher or a nail gun. All parts of the industry, and increasingly the manufacturers, are starting to realize that there have to be some basic installation standards, and the push is on from many directions to find the best way to accomplish this.

Although it’s been discussed for years, and has been something of a sore spot in the carpet industry, certification of installers is starting to gain some traction. But it’s a movement that’s still in its infancy, is fragmented, and is in some ways controversial. There’s a hodgepodge of certification programs that collectively affect only a small number of installers, and they don’t all have the same set of standards for the same kind of flooring.

There’s no single certification agency that everyone turns to, although the non-profit Certified Floorcovering Installers is the largest group of its kind and has certified nearly 30,000 installers in its 15 year history. It’s certifying equal numbers of both residential and commercial installers. The International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, through International Standards and Training Alliance (INSTALL), also trains and certifies its members, who are mostly commercial installers. Some large manufacturers such as Armstrong World Industries, Shaw Industries and Mohawk Industries, have their own certification programs, but those programs are aimed at their own products, and they focus on both residential and commercial installation. Virtually all manufacturers of any size offer some kind of installation training.

There are also certification programs by groups such as the National Wood Flooring Association. The Carpet and Rug Institute has published its own carpet installation standards, but it does not conduct training or certification. 

There’s also an effort underway—in the very early stages—to bring some common standards to carpet installation. Major manufacturers are trying to get as many interested parties—from retailers to installers to contractors to the current training agencies—to agree to a common set of skills and techniques that would be used as the basis for a common certification program. The long term goal would be to require that carpet be installed by a certified installer in order for the carpet to retain its warranty. But, as industry insiders acknowledge, it won’t work unless everyone agrees to it—from manufacturers to retailers to contract dealers—and it will most likely be a fairly long process to get there.

Certification is an enormous challenge for the floorcovering industry. Depending on whom you talk to, there are anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 flooring installers in the U.S., but it’s impossible to know for sure. Anecdotal evidence says the vast majority of them, maybe up to 90% or so, are independent contractors, but nobody really keeps track of them. 

There’s also a reason that virtually all of the training and certification is being performed by non-profits. So far, no one has figured out how to make money by training installers. This is completely different from, for example, the floorcovering cleaning and maintenance business. Training in cleaning is a fairly large and profitable business, and certifications are available in a number of specialties. But this industry, unlike installation, is hired directly by the consumer, so it’s a completely different business model.

There are also myriad other complicating factors and there’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of the industry. When something goes wrong, fingers are often pointed in a lot of directions.

One significant problem is that many flooring installers have never had any kind of business training. Many of them are technically capable of doing an acceptable installation job but in order to get business they undervalue their skills and price their bids so low that they can barely make any money. For them, volume is the name of the game and, in effect, it has turned installation into a commodity when many experts believe installation should be one of the most value-adding parts of the flooring transaction. Ultra low prices encourage lots of corner-cutting and other problems.

Some retailers are complicit in this situation because they are often looking to spend as little as possible on installation of their products. They either don’t want to hire their own installers and pay them a higher wage with benefits, or sometimes they just can’t find qualified people who want to work for someone else. Many independent contractors would just as soon stay independent.

Also, many installers, whether independent or not, simply do not want to go back to school, for a variety of reasons. Many don’t want to be embarrassed—find out that the way they’ve been installing for years doesn’t measure up today. Some can’t speak English and many haven’t been in a school setting in decades and are unsure of themselves. Until all aspects of the floorcovering industry work together to require certification and then agree to use certified installers, this situation isn’t likely to improve.

Rightly or not, manufacturers also get their share of the blame too, as some say they don’t provide enough support for their products to make sure they are installed correctly. But some manufacturers understandably see installation as a business issue rather than a product issue, so once their products leave the factory—assuming they aren’t defective—installation ceases to be their problem. But whether they like it or not, a poor installation job reflects poorly on them, if only because some consumers will believe that installers must in some way have the approval of the manufacturer to install their products.

Beyond initial certification, continuing education is another significant issue that most certification programs are trying to address. While basic measuring techniques and other practices don’t change much, there are continuing advances in things like adhesives and moisture proofing, which over the years have changed how many kinds of flooring are installed.

Certified Floorcovering Installers has certifications in carpet, ceramic, laminate, vinyl, finished hardwood, and heat welding. Of the 29,800 installers it has certified since 1993, all but 600 have been carpet installers and about 85% have been independent contractors. CFI has four levels of installation—platinum, gold, silver and bronze. They’re designated that way to make it easier for consumers to understand what level they’re getting. This year, CFI will likely offer about 400 training classes across the country, which will be taught by its 79 volunteer trainers. It’s also beginning to take on more large organizations. Last year it offered both installation and sales training for Lowe’s employees, and CFI said it has been approached by five large retail organizations.

Although CFI certification for the hard surface side just started last year, it’s likely to become increasingly important as hard surface flooring continues to steal marketshare from carpet, and carpet manufacturers themselves continue to expand into hard surfaces. In addition, many long-time carpet installers are switching over to hard surfaces and they really aren’t qualified to install them. The hard surface game is also changing because many carpet dealers are moving aggressively into hard surfaces, such as wood, because consumers are trending that way. However, their attitudes about installation remain firmly planted in carpeting, which is bringing more subcontractors into the hard surface installation business. It wasn’t long ago that, for example, hardwood consumers almost universally bought from a hardwood specialist, who had the job installed by one of the firm’s employees. 

CFI works with a variety of groups to get its training accomplished. Although the lion’s share of its funds comes from training and certification fees, it gets significant financial support from the World Floor Covering Association, which also helps out with publicity about its programs. Mohawk Industries supplies carpet for all CFI programs and Armstrong and Mannington supply hard surface materials. A half dozen other suppliers  also donate products.

CFI has also begun working with manufacturers on joint certification. For example, in order to get CFI hard surface certification, the installer must first get Armstrong certification. It’s working on similar deals with laminate and other hard surface manufacturers.

INSTALL handles certification for members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Certification is open for anyone who reaches journeyman status, which requires a four-year apprenticeship. Each year of the apprenticeship requires 160 hours of school training. Certification is available in carpet, resilient, and wood. It doesn’t certify in ceramic tile or stone but is planning to branch into those areas within the next couple of years.

INSTALL, because it is affiliated with the union, is a well funded group. Certification requirements are often written into local bargaining contracts, and jobs often require the use of certified installers, so a company that has certified installers can compete for more work. The union has more than 30 training facilities and, in total, a $175 million training budget.

Although the group is well funded and well supported by manufacturers, it still only represents a small portion of the flooring installation industry. As of last November—roughly three years into the program—it had certified just 1,300 installers in both the U.S. and Canada. The organization’s goal is to bump that number up to roughly 2,600 by the middle of this year and to 15,000 over the next five years.

INSTALL works mostly with commercial contractors. Most of its work is in the heavily unionized states in the Northeast and Midwest but it wants to grow in the Southeast and the Southwest. 

Even within the union, certification is not entirely accepted. Because the training is broad, for example, a certified resilient installer will know how to install VCT and sheet vinyl and will know how to do heat welding. However, in many places, union employees are specialists. An installer might do nothing but install VCT. Consequently, some see the extra training as unnecessary.

Other Associations
The National Wood Flooring Association has a small but ambitious certification program. It has five trainers on staff and runs 30 schools nationwide. Its instructors train INSTALL’s instructors, and the association is also working closely with CFI. In five years, NWFA has certified about 180 installers.

The Ceramic Tile Education Foundation is also embarking on a new certification program for tilesetters that will be unveiled at Coverings in April. There, several students will go through the hands-on portion of the training throughout the week. The program has the backing of the National Tile Contractors Association and the Tile Council of North America, which represents manufacturers. There is also some support from overseas, since 74% of all tile installed here is imported.

It’s not clear how many tile installation specialists there are, but the foundation believes it’s somewhere around 60,000. The initial portion of the certification program will be to assess the skills of as many tilesetters as possible. If they can perform to the program’s requirements, they’ll receive documentation and marketing materials to validate that they have achieved Level 1 certification. This year courses will be offered at several locations, such as Mapei and Laticrete facilities, in the basic certification and next year the program will expand to offer courses for higher skill level.

In Floor Focus surveys, installation is repeatedly identified as the number one problem retailers face. If all facets of the industry can agree on common standards, training and certification, and put it all into action, perhaps someday this issue will be bumped from the top of our survey’s list. 

Copyright 2008 Floor Focus 


Related Topics:NWFA Expo, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills, Coverings, Armstrong Flooring, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Laticrete, Carpet and Rug Institute