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Industry seeks new ways to recruit, keep installers

January 19/26, 2015; Volume 28/Number 15

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 2.38.21 PMThe flooring industry has recently been plagued by what is known as the “installation problem.” There is a shortage of qualified installers, with fewer entering the field every year. The economic downturn made a bad situation worse, as many potential installers had to find work elsewhere in what is considered more lucrative fields. What, if anything, can the industry do to attract a new wave of professional installers to the trade?

Jim Walker, CEO of the International Certified Flooring Installers Association (CFI), said the overall problem is that installers entering the trade are not compensated well enough. Flooring installation is not easy work, and the payment for services is at an all-time low.

“Why would an individual enter a trade or attend a school when, upon completion, he or she will receive less income than they would working at a fast food restaurant, and be without benefits?,” he asked. “This critical scenario must be addressed in order to figure out where we will find and train the new installers the industry desperately needs.”

Successful installers understand the shortage of qualified workers in the trade, Walker noted, but they have developed a working relationship with their clients. Therefore, they are not experiencing this issue because “they receive adequate income for their labor”

Doug Ray, president and CEO of Floor Installation Association of North America (FIANA), said, “With the exception of the floor as art—for example, hardwood and ceramic specialty designs—the attraction of [an installer] being a good career has not necessarily been at the forefront of the minds of those entering the workforce. Yet, the need is expansive, considering the square footage installed every year.”

With the changing job market, a different approach is needed to attract new blood to the trade. “The cry has always been for the well-trained installer to satisfy flooring needs,” Ray explained. “But in a society where there are very few trade schools specializing in this, the onus has been shifted to associations focused on such training and on manufacturers providing the expertise as they make the end product.”

Couple this issue with a recession that left installers having to look for other work to survive, and the loss of a workforce is felt even more. “Many have left for good, finding less physically demanding and better paying jobs. Those who stayed were either well-qualified installers who stuck it out, positioning themselves for the turnaround, or contractors who bid low just to get whatever jobs were there.”

According to Allan Ellis, immediate past president of CFI, much of the installer problem has to do with perception. He admitted that it is very difficult to attract quality individuals to the flooring installation trade, and shared the common belief that the younger generation does not see the opportunities of the trade.

“As installers, we create great value for the consumers and, in many situations, we create a work of art,” he explained. “Daily, we receive a new canvas on which to display our skills. The immigrants to our nation, whether because they can envision the possibilities of this trade or have a hunger for success, seem to make the best recruits.”

Possible solutions

Recently, organizations such as CFI and the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) have partnered to certify installers at industry gatherings like The International Surface Event in Las Vegas. While this is a positive development for installers already in the trade, as well as for the industry as a whole, the consensus is that more needs to be done at an earlier point to attract new recruits.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 2.38.28 PMGerry Swift, chairman of Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association (FCICA), believes that in both commercial and residential, “we’re all now feeling the shortage of trained installers as the economy, for the most part, is strong. Our industry has had a huge problem attracting the next generation of installers. Unlike other trades such as carpentry, electrical, HVAC, etc., our industry has very limited opportunities for formal training and certification.”

To counteract this, Swift believes the industry needs to get flooring installation into community colleges and vocational schools. “I’d hope that as an industry we could find ways of acquiring grants and other funding through our federal and local governments. There are many good, young people in our local communities with ambition to become more than a minimum-wage employee at the local fast food restaurant. They may not be cut out for college or simply can’t afford it. These are the people we need for our trade.”

Ellis also believes installation training should begin early in high school programs, technical and junior colleges. “Recruiting those who return from the military is also an option, but we still face big obstacles which include insufficient pay, irregular working hours and no benefits for those who are independent contractors. It is a hard sell to train someone and then not be able to pay him a decent wage.”

David Garden, a CFI Master-II installer and operations manager for Installation Services of Michigan, a Detroit-based workroom, would also like to see floor installation classes offered in high schools or trade schools. But he believes the real issue isn’t finding installers—it is finding quality installers.

“You can find installers, just not ones you’d want to hire,” he said. “What our trade seriously lacks are educated mechanics—people who understand what it takes to run their businesses. Most don’t understand how much money they are making. By the time they figure out how much money they have lost, they get disillusioned and leave the trade altogether. Without the proper tutelage, I would have been in the same situation.”

According to Walker, the situation can be changed rather easily. “All we need is the ‘want to do it’ and it will happen. Why not start with noting a requirement for certified installers on the back of samples of higher-end products? Let’s offer someone the opportunity to receive what she expected when she purchased the product.”

It is the consensus of many that until manufacturers require skilled installation, there will always be a need for more qualified installers. “The shortage of installers is much more complex than the training issue,” Walker added.

Ray believes the only way the industry is going to attract new installers is to prove flooring installation is a good and honest way to make a living. The flooring industry needs to prove to installers—and potential installers—that “they are an inherent part of the process, not just an easy blame source when things go wrong.”

Concerning education, Garden added that CFI has an exceptional one-week installation course that is conducted at the dealer’s store, which entails intensive training that prepares the students, in many cases, to become more qualified than the majority of those who currently represent the trade.

“It will take classes like these to get the numbers we need to fill the vast hole that exists today,” he said.

According to Ellis, the bottom line is that “dealers and manufacturers should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they would work in an industry that does not support the installation of the products they manufacture and sell.”