Tile Files: Apprenticeship programs help solve the tile installation crisis - Feb 2019

By Scott Carothers

Across the U.S., there are several retail and commercial contractor organizations fighting the tile installer shortage with apprenticeship programs. The three organizations highlighted here-introduced in a previous Tile Files, October 2018-have developed in-house apprenticeship programs that offer payoff for their organizations in both the short and long term. Here we’ll dive into the format of each installer’s program and look at what it took to build. In addition, several individuals who have sought out certification for themselves offer their insights on the value of professional training.

TILE APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAMS
Dan Welch-Welch Tile and Marble, Kent City, Michigan-is Certified Tile Installer (CTI) #1. He originally decided to take the CTI tests to find out what he knew and didn’t know. As a result, he integrated the program into his own hiring and training programs, and he currently employs over 25 CTIs. He expanded testing to his entire staff to verify their skills and knowledge, even if they aren’t being used in that capacity.

Embracing the CTI program at Welch Tile and Marble has helped to build pride. The entire team looks out for the work of others, has the confidence to say something when things aren’t right and possesses the knowledge to explain why.

In today’s market, qualified labor matters intensely. As Welch explains, the biggest issue that leads to bad tile jobs is having to work over the bad work of others (e.g. backer board hangers, those who pour concrete, masons, plumbers and carpenters). If a tile setter knows how to fix bad work (or make these people fix their work) in addition to installing correctly, many subpar tile installations disappear.

Sam Bruce-Visalia Ceramic Tile, Visalia, California-employs 30 CTIs. His decision to embrace the CTI program had to do with becoming a National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) Five Star Contractor, which requires a percentage of installers to be certified. He knew his installers were more than capable of passing the tests. He also realized that having a CTI certification would be a source of pride and motivation for his installers. In one weekend, he had 20 installers tested, and all of them passed.

Since then, the CTI program has become an integral part of Visalia training. According to Bruce, the company now embraces continuous industry training with three training days per year that focus on tile industry standards and best practices. The company has hosted an NTCA Regional Training too. Visalia applied for and was approved for its own Tile Finisher Apprenticeship Program by the Department of Labor. The focus on training has helped the company improve so it can continue its tradition of quality installations.

When it comes to qualified labor, Bruce sees the CTI Program as part of the solution. It’s a great measurement of what qualified labor should be, and it also identifies the deficiencies of an installer who does not pass. Once these deficiencies are known, installer training focuses on how to get to the next step. 

If the tile industry can’t address the labor issue, it will lose marketshare. Competitors are doing their part by manufacturing and promoting products that require neither qualified labor nor even skilled labor. For Visalia, having the Apprenticeship Program in place has given the firm a good start to combating the labor shortage. It has also given Visalia employees a positive outlook on their positions. Bruce plans to use the apprenticeship program, which demonstrates a path to a fulfilling career in the tile industry, to recruit the next generation.

Dave Mastrangelo-The Tile Studio, Doylestown, Pennsylvania-has been in business for over 40 years. He employs a total of 20 individuals, including seven family members and three CTIs. Mastrangelo’s company offers two apprenticeship programs that are recognized by the state of Pennsylvania as well as the Federal Committee on Apprenticeship: 
1. Tile Finisher (helper + grouter): a two-year program that includes 4,000 hours of on-the-job training plus 144 hours/year of related technical instruction
2. Tile Setter (sets tile and natural stone): a three-year program that includes 6,000 hours of on-the-job training plus 144 hours/year of related technical instruction (RTI)

By the way, The Tile Studio is the only open shop (non-union) tile contractor to have registered apprenticeship programs in the state of Pennsylvania. These programs include training through its very own tile school, held monthly in its warehouse and led by its master mechanics, in addition to NTCA and CTEF programs.

For The Tile Studio, not being able to find, attract, develop and retain talent represented a significant constraint to growth. The company requires qualified labor to do the type of work ($5 million homes and large-scale commercial) it specializes in. With apprenticeship programs in place, Mastrangelo can now approach vocational schools and present students with a glimpse of the tile industry and why more students are needed. He can also approach other high school students who prefer a vocational path to a college path, along with targeting people who are unhappy with their roles at other companies and may be looking to grow and advance their careers elsewhere.

FOCUS ON QUALIFIED LABOR
For Dirk Sullivan-Hawthorne Tile, Portland, Oregon-encouraging his staff to become CTIs sends the message that tile industry installation standards are real and extremely important. And it has also led to greater installation consistency among his staff. Training and education represent the single biggest investment his company can make in the future of the tile industry and in his own business-this is true for every tile installation company in the industry.

For Mark Heinlein, CTI #1112-National Tile Contractors Association, training director, technical trainer/presenter-becoming a CTI was a validation of both who he is and the work he is capable of. Plus, becoming qualified labor is an invaluable marketing tool.

Tile industry standards, methods and best practices help installers stand apart from their competition. Professionals and savvy consumers understand qualified labor; they yearn for it. Installers should too.

Heinlein encourages every tile installer to look in the mirror, put ego aside and ask themselves, what do I really know about my profession and what are my capabilities? Take the CTI challenge, he says, and do it for yourself. Be inspired to continue learning. That’s what he does every day. He figures out where the holes in his knowledge are and how to fill them. He learns new things about his profession and the tile industry and shares them in his educational role with the National Tile Contractor Association.

In Heinlein’s estimation, the process of becoming a CTI and ACT (Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers) certified puts an installer on a path to help fill knowledge holes. Heinlein encourages installers to become certified today, invest in tile industry standards-based education, join professional associations and get involved. Heinlein reports that he’s glad he did.

Alex Smith, CTI #1500-Installations by Alex, Blowing Rock, North Carolina-just recently became a Certified Tile Installer, on his second try. A solo craftsman, Smith established Installations by Alex so he could engage more fully with clients as an independent entity. This has allowed him greater freedom in the range and scope of the projects he accepts.  

He wanted to become a CTI to continue his education and cross-check his knowledge and abilities with a non-biased set of standards. Though the national standards have been in place for some time, the lack of an agency to educate and accredit installers means that the quality of installation work in the industry is sporadic at best.

He uses the CTI to assure his clients that they are not just taking a chance with their tile installation project. It validates that he cares about the quality of his work, and that it has a sound foundation for longevity of use.  

PRIDE AND COMMITMENT
Do you sense a theme from these spotlights? Pride in craftsmanship, motivation, thirst for ever-changing product knowledge and installation techniques, validation, commitment to higher tile installation standards, passion for sharing the knowledge….

The pursuit is infectious. It transforms the installer into a role model or mentor to tile installers who have not yet decided to become certified tile installers. Not only do these individuals see the need to draw new blood into the ranks of the tile industry, but they also realize how critical it is to properly train and certify, making qualified labor come alive.

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