Tackling the Installer Shortage: What industry organizations are doing to attract a new generation of installers – March 2022
By Jessica Chevalier
A decade or so ago, Robert Varden, vice president of Certified Flooring Installers (CFI) and life-long installer and educator, began noticing a trend in the classes he was teaching; all of his students were advanced in age, with decades of experience as installers. “There wasn’t a man there under the age of 50 and in the business less than 20 years,” he recalls. There was no one new to the industry, no one starting down their path to a flooring installation career. Varden was alarmed. He approached Jim and Jane Walker, founders of CFI, and proposed that, instead of focusing on two-day certification programs for current flooring installers, they should shift in focus to developing a program to recruit new installers as well as a curriculum to train them.
The program began with some research work, surveying young people about why they hadn’t considered a career in floorcovering installation. That one question unveiled the crux of the recruitment issue. “They had no clue the career existed,” says Varden. “They know all the other trades-plumbing, roofing, masonry, electric-but not us.”
Unfamiliarity with the idea of floorcovering installation as a trade is part of a larger problem: the promotion of college for all and devaluing of the trades as a viable and lucrative path. Over the last decades, even programs that exposed high schoolers to trade-like activities and concepts, like shop and home economics, have largely been stripped from curriculums in favor of college tracks. “When I was in high school, the default was going into the trades, and it was more exceptional to go to college,” recalls John McGrath, executive director of INSTALL (the International Standards and Training Alliance), installer and educator. “Now, high school students are not even aware of the trades. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.”
But as the price of higher education has skyrocketed, industry organizations-including CFI, the Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF), INSTALL and the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA)-see this as a good time to catch the attention of young people with the message that floorcovering installation offers the opportunity to start adulthood free of college debt and begin making money within only a handful of months. And says Bart Bettiga, executive director of the National Tile Contractors Association, “There is a movement that is just beginning in which young people are seeing the trades as a real option.” In addition, he has seen a good deal of interest in tile installation from women.
PROS OF THE CAREER
• Opportunity-There is a great deal of need in the market and money to be made.
• Compensation-Professional and experienced floorcovering craftsmen can make six-figure incomes.
• Fast cash-In a matter of months, new installers can be in the work force, earning money.
• Low investment-Many new installers can receive initial training at low or no cost, due to scholarship programs, so they can enter their career student debt-free.
• BYOB (Be Your Own Boss)-Floorcovering installers can work independently, on their own schedules.
• Artists with Muscles (coined by McGrath)-Floorcovering installation is hands-on and task-oriented work but offers freedom for creative expression.
• Satisfaction-A flooring installer’s finished work is visible and, therefore, offers a degree of satisfaction that the work of “hidden” trades may not.
CONS OF THE CAREER
• Compensation-Some other trades have a higher base compensation.
• Benefits-Because flooring installers are largely independent contractors, they are not generally provided with health insurance benefits, retirement plans or disability.
• Prestige-Misconceptions about the floorcovering trade have led some to have negative views of the career’s potential, and the lack of a formal “craftsman” certification in the U.S. makes it less appealing for those who seek formal and verifiable qualifiers.
• BYOB (Be Your Own Boss)-Being your own boss means you must market, pursue work and manage taxes and insurance independently.
All stakeholders in the floorcovering industry agree that increasing interest in floorcovering installation as a career path and, ultimately, recruiting new installers must be approached as a group effort. No single organization, company, retailer or commercial contractor can make a large enough dent to solve the problem without the collaboration of others.
As a board member and industry representative for the Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF), Piet Dossche is calling on all industry entities to support the organization’s new Basic Flooring Installation program. The pilot program for technical colleges and trade schools, launched at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, is designed to prepare men and women of all ages for a career in flooring installation.
Dossche believes that manufacturers large and small should establish recurring financial systems in support of the program. In January, Welspun was the first to do this, committing one cent for every square foot of its private labeled SPC, broadloom and carpet tile sold in North America. Dossche believes this is the model of how the program should be financed moving forward. “At FCEF, we don’t want to be beggars; the money needs to come in in a consistent, reliable fashion,” he says.
In addition, Dossche calls on retailers to build support for the program with their local technical colleges-going to their local schools, explaining the need and endorsing the FCEF effort. The establishment of additional programs will follow demand, so retailers can directly combat installer shortages in their community by building cooperation with their local schools.
The second step of the educational effort involves growing graduates into master craftsmen, and the local retailer has a crucial role in that effort, as well. “Right after the training, retailers need to bring those young people into their environment, link them with a seasoned installer for an apprenticeship and perfect their skill set,” says Dossche. “We will teach them the basics, the initial principles of measuring, installing carpet and hard surface, but the extra piece will come through apprenticeship with experienced flooring installers.”
McGrath reports that the timing of marrying the right apprentice with the right opportunity is key. “Our apprentice programs all have waiting lists, but it doesn’t pay to bring in someone who wants to start a career, sign them up, have them become a member,” and then have them wait around for months for a placement. Once a pairing is made, INSTALL waits a few months before going back to both parties to see if it’s a good match. INSTALL works with over 1,000 high schools across the U.S., as well as with vocational schools. Through its Job Corp program, it has developed a program for at-risk youth. In addition, as part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, INSTALL participates in both the Job Corp program and Career Connections.
INSTALL has long had outreach programs targeting minorities and First Nations people. Its Sisters in the Brotherhood program focuses on bringing women into the floorcovering installer trade, and its Helmets to Hardhats program works with veterans. In addition, it provides career-long training, where members are required to participate in in order to retain their credentials.
Dossche emphasizes that the FCEF’s training program and those like it stand to benefit the entire flooring industry. “The industry can only grow to the extent that we can install flooring and finalize the last mile in the chain,” he says. “If we have a labor shortage, we won’t be able to grow the industry bigger, so this is something that we have to work on together. The program in Dalton is a blueprint of what we believe is a curriculum that can be rolled out nationwide. We have a strategy that will work for the first time, provided everyone gets behind it.”
Would it benefit the industry to establish a craftsman certification, signifying the highest proficiency of skill in flooring installation, as some European countries do?
Dossche believes that it would. “There’s no question, if you elevate the profession in that way, it builds respect for it,” he says. “It’s like a certified electrician-there is respect for that. People are not just motivated by money but also by having an esteemed career. Elevating it from a job to a craft is key in attracting people to look at the industry and career as something that they can really embrace, something to be proud of because it has a proper status; it’s not just an entry-level job. They have done that in the EU through apprenticeships. It takes years from apprenticeship to become an expert.”
Similarly, McGrath believes that the key to elevating the job path is emphasizing formal training. “If I’m physically capable, that’s my value proposition,” says McGrath. “It’s about brute strength as opposed to finesse and skill. But if you emphasize formal training, it’s a career. That’s what we do at INSTALL. Our people are going to school for four years, and here, if they don’t make it, they get kicked out and they lose a career.”
Adds Bettiga, “This is hard work, but if you embrace that and the creative component, there is really limitless opportunity to make good income.”
THE COVID IMPACT
The organizations with whom we spoke reported that Covid hindered their efforts initially-both recruitment and training are in-person and hands-on activities. However, as the organizations found ways to pivot, they established new systems and programs that will ultimately strengthen their efforts.
“Prior to Covid, I really disparaged online learning,” says McGrath. “It can be dangerous in flooring because you don’t know if skill sets are truly mastered. But because of Covid, we went on steroids with creating online learning management systems, so today we have a hybrid model, where the theory is online, but we are always going to have the person physically demonstrate that they have learned the skill set.” INSTALL has a one-million-square-foot training center in Las Vegas.
Covid also put the clamp on NTCA’s mobile-based training. “We have four full-time trainers and three independent contractors and have invested in a mobile training platform,” explains Bettiga. “These are fully-equipped vans and trucks that are on the road, providing training, some entry-level and some advanced.” All told, this equates to 150 to 200 education events annually.
The NTCA is thankful that, amid Covid, its associated partners did not pull their funding, which allowed the organization to retain its staff. Through that time, the organization made use of technology to offer a host of online programs for members to keep them connected and educated. “And the minute we could start training again, we did,” says Bettiga. “We are back on the road full scale in 2022.” NTCA has a full, four-year Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program through its learning management system; members can use the NTCA’s program or tweak it to develop their own.
CFI used the lockdown months to nurture its programs with the Department of Labor and the Goodwill and is seeing these really start to pay off. “Our Goodwill program classes are full,” says Varden. The group also offers Build My Future, Flooring Edition, a collaboration with the National Association of Home Builders through which CFI began displaying at high school job fairs. “You have to engage them,” says Varden. “At one job fair, my son Jonathan got pretty creative. He cut up HardieBacker into 4” squares, broke glass tile and made a stand to hold buckets of mastic.” Students were encouraged to use the materials to make a mosaic coaster. “In front of our booth, the kids were four deep,” reports Varden.
Once a student commits to becoming an installer, CFI offer intensive education modules that shorten the learning curve as much as possible. “People ask me,” says Varden, “‘Can you really teach a guy to install a whole house in five weeks?’ I tell them, “You need to come to the school and see. They won’t be the quickest installer out there, but everything will be done right, and they will know more than most.”
Key to attracting new workers to the installation trade is making it competitive with other trades compensation-wise. And, to some degree, this hinges on the retailer and commercial contractor being willing to pay more. Varden, whose brother is also an installer, reports that he recently looked at his brother’s ledgers from 30 years ago and noted that many installers today are being paid the same rate that his brother was then.
For the retailer, it’s a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Except, in this case, they are robbing Peter to pay Peter, and they, themselves, are Peter. Raising the level of compensation across the board would attract more talent to the profession, which would result in retailers being able to offer higher quality and more timely installation, allowing both the retailer and installer to make more money.
In addition, while the recent price increases on floorcoverings are well documented, the increased cost of flooring sundries (not to mention gas) has pinched the installers’ pocketbook even more.
However, it’s also important to remember that professional and skilled installers do make competitive wages and good livings. Varden, for instance, was interviewed while at the resort he owns in Belize, a beach-front property that he was able to purchase from his earnings as a floorcovering installer. So while the low end of the floorcovering installer payscale may be lower than other trades, the high end can be quite lucrative.
Copyright 2022 Floor Focus
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