Tile Files: Responding to the labor shortage issue - Oct 2018

By Scott Carothers

Most likely, you are dealing firsthand with the low unemployment rate. Based on the Department of Labor Statistics, it hovers near 4%, close to the 4.4% unemployment rate recorded just before the economic downturn that took place in May of 2007.

Prior to that date, the tile industry enjoyed a 35-year run of increased usage of ceramic and porcelain tile, which culminated at 3.32 billion square feet installed on an annual basis. Today, driven by the economic rebound, usage is at just over three billion square feet, meaning we are near the 2007 levels.

The difference this time is the drastically reduced installation labor pool. Most installation contractors have as much work as they can handle; those who don’t have enough laborers are turning work away.

In the tile world, finding good installers is difficult. Not only is everyone busy, but the “good” installers are already working for someone else and most, if not all, employers can’t find enough help. If restaurants are unable to find and employ people of any age for jobs that require limited training, how is the tile industry going to find, train for three or four years, and retain high-quality tile installers?

Tile is a permanent finish, and it must both perform and look beautiful. That means withstanding extreme conditions (i.e., moisture, temperature and high traffic), not to mention site-induced structural pressures. Furthermore, tile has rapidly evolved to be bigger, thinner, longer and more highly varied in appearance, all of which increases the complexity and required skill-set to complete the installation. In support, installation materials have morphed into compounds where complex chemical reactions take place.

Tile installation has become a complex, technical profession that requires skills, training, a commitment to lifelong learning and a desire to install tile correctly. There’s no room for sloppy, inexperienced and untrained workmanship. It’s the work of a technical artisan, also known as “qualified labor.” So, what’s an industry to do?

That’s how and why the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) got started with the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program in 2008 as the economy tanked and workers had more free time. The program was designed to combat poor installation and set apart those who considered themselves high-quality tile installers. In fact, that program is setting the stage for invaluable solutions to the labor conundrum in the form of apprenticeships.

An apprenticeship is a training program that combines studying the industry standards and best practices with on-the-job training. Here, the apprentice attends training classes while working under the watchful eye of a well-seasoned tradesperson. The mentoring part is crucial to the success of an apprenticeship program.

Here is a partial listing of several successful tile apprenticeship programs:

Welch Tile and Marble, Kent City, Michigan-Dan Welch of Welch Tile and Marble has created and continues to build his in-house apprenticeship program, where new employees follow a video-based training program while working full time on the job.

As previously mentioned, mentoring is critical to the success of the apprentice. At Welch Tile and Marble, mentors are CTIs. The CTEF CTI program certifies the skills and knowledge of existing tile installers. Dan Welch is CTI #1 and employs over 25 CTIs.

Welch’s program has become the model for the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) University’s online training program used in conjunction with on the job training.

Visalia Ceramic Tile, Visalia, California-Sam Bruce of Visalia Ceramic Tile is an open-shop tile contractor who uses his Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program to train his workforce. His senior installers, who are CTIs, act as mentors to the young aspiring tile setters. Bruce even exposes the young tile setters to extreme installation opportunities alongside his CTIs during events such as the Coverings Installation Design Showcase event, where a tiny house must be tiled within the brief timeframe of the show. Bruce currently holds the CTEF record in the U.S. by employing 30 CTIs.

The Tile Studio, Doylestown, Pennsylvania-Dave Mastrangelo of The Tile Studio has had difficulty finding qualified tile installers. Mastrangelo created his own apprenticeship program consisting of a two-year training program for tile finishers and a three-year program for tile setters, including classes and thousands of hours of real-world work experience. The CTI program plays a role, as does the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) University online training program.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Office of Apprenticeship and Training approved this program in April, a process that required letters of recommendation from the CTEF and the NTCA. It is the first and only one in the state of Pennsylvania.

“After completing the program, a tile setter can make about $65,000 a year and a finisher can make about $45,000, but those are lower-end estimates,” says Mastrangelo.

Trade or vocational schools are another valuable resource for developing trained installers, and these are gaining new respect and attention for several reasons.

No one wants to begin a career having amassed a massive debt. And yet, many students graduating with a college degree have acquired significant debt while obtaining their degree. So, they begin their working careers-assuming they can find a job in their field that pays a significant starting salary-saddled with student loans.

Many young people have succumbed to the traditional pressure to attend a four-year institution rather than consider any type of vocational training. After all, not everyone is “college material.” Many of those who aren’t will enter their freshman year and quickly realize that they don’t fit into the college system, drop out and not return to school. The result is a young person with no formal training who must settle for a job well below his or her potential in order to survive. Once that happens, the young person starts living hand to mouth and it then becomes difficult to entice them into a trade school or apprenticeship program.

None of this is new. Mike Rowe, host of the television show Dirty Jobs, testified before Congress about this very situation in 2011.What is new is the increasing appreciation for options that instead offer a defined career path and a very respectable paycheck. That said, vocational schools need a push.

Although some communities have the benefit of a vocational school in the area that trains people of all ages in trades such as carpentry, masonry or electrical, many don’t offer training in finishes such as ceramic tile. With such limits on the number of schools across the country offering training for tile installation, it is only natural that getting into these classes would be challenging, as most have a lengthy waiting list.

Some states, like Georgia, understand the conundrum and realize the opportunity that trade and vocational schools represent for the economy.

The Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA) promotes the construction industry through construction training and job placement. It partners with the Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Education to ensure that an industry-developed construction curriculum and standards are implemented in high school and vocational construction-related programs.

CEFGA also conducts a testing program each year in Atlanta in concert with SkillsUSA to qualify students’ participation in the SkillsUSA national competition. To get ceramic tile into this testing process, CTEF created the Study Guide, a knowledge test that each participant must pass prior to attending the CEFGA event, and the parameters of the hands-on testing.

Additionally, during the testing programs, several thousand students along with their instructors are offered hands-on opportunities in many trades. Students are setting tile on a park bench, probably for the first time. The key here is to stimulate interest in tile installation among the young people who briefly take time to experience the tiling process.

Pennsylvania boasts a vocational training program that has been working well since its first graduating class of 1894. The Williamson College of the Trades located in Media, Pennsylvania accepts about 100 applicants per year to receive a full scholarship for a three-year trade education. An endowment fund begun by its founder, Isaiah Williamson, and others continues to fund this effort. An illustration of the program’s excellence is the fact that two students each took silver medals at the SkillsUSA National Competition this year in masonry and plumbing.

Let’s not forget the importance of educating those who will work alongside tile installation professionals, so they understand the installation requirements of their designs. That is what NTCA Nebraska State Ambassador Dan Hecox recently did when he gave the Architecture & Design students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln a class on how to avoid tile failures.

Hecox is CTI #1215. He also serves as a CTEF Regional Evaluator in the CTI program hands-on testing program to expand the number of CTIs in more areas across the United States.

The prior examples highlight the dedication and creativity of an industry determined to find solutions to the labor shortage. They are models for additional programs. And they are powerful because the entire tile industry supports them.

For example, the Board of the United States-based Coverings Tile and Stone Exposition has promoted qualified labor at its annual shows since 2008. There, attendees have witnessed the testing process administered during the hands-on testing of the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) and the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) programs. During the 2018 Coverings show, attendees benefited from viewing the CTI Challenge and the Installation Experience, which were further amplified through social media networks and groups.

Remember Dan Welch? He uses his Installation Design Showcase from Coverings 2016-built in a shipping container so it could be brought back to Michigan-to serve multiple purposes. One key function of Dan’s container at local job fairs is inspiring students to become the next generation of tile apprentices.

You, too, can help build the next generation of quality tile installers by:
• Ensuring your tile installers become CTIs; it will boost consumer confidence
• Exploring how to help specifiers become aware of the implications of their tile designs in the real world
• Speaking to young people about their future and how fulfilling and profitable installing tile can be
• Determining how distributors, installers and contractors recruit, train and inspire young people into the tile trade
• Being open to new collaborations, then making them happen

Don’t be like the ostrich and hide your head in the sand, hoping this conundrum goes away. Become a part of the solution of building a pool of talented tile installers, making the tile industry a model for other trades.

Copyright 2018 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:RD Weis, Armstrong Flooring, Coverings