Jan 18/25; Volume 30/Number 15
By Ken Ryan
Installation—whether it is the shortage of qualified mechanics or the challenge of recruiting the next generation—is not a new problem. However, some flooring veterans say the situation has never been this bad and if left untreated could endanger the specialty retail channel.
According to the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) and its Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI) division, nearly 60% of installers in the field today have 15-plus years experience. Five years from now they are forecasting 20% fewer installers than exist today. In the next 10 years the flooring industry is expected to lose 50% of the current installation force. As it stands today, most dealers say there are not enough installers to fill the jobs currently booked, leading to a backlog and delays.
“Many of our dealers said they could install twice as much as they’re installing today if they had more installers,” said Keith Spano, president of Flooring America.
Scott Humphrey, CEO of the WFCA, said the time has come to fix this problem. “Over the last 30 years the entire industry has talked about the installation issue, but except for a very few, including CFI, none have dared to address it. As an industry we must address this issue or the 25% reduction in independent retailers we have seen over the last seven years will only be the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes it takes a crisis for the industry to change. Hopefully this is a rallying cry.”
The issue of skilled labor shortages is not specific to flooring. Vacancies are occurring across all disciplines, including electricians and plumbers. For the sixth consecutive year, skilled trade vacancies are the hardest job to fill in the U.S., according to Manpower-Group’s annual Talent Shortage Survey.
Other statistics shed light on the problem. U.S. residential construction spending in August climbed above $36 billion, the highest monthly total since October 2007, according to government data. Yet there were 676,500 fewer workers in residential construction nationwide to handle the work. The great recession exacerbated the installation dilemma. During the downturn, the industry lost a generation of installers either through lack of work that prompted them to look elsewhere or retirement or even layoffs. In addition, these journeymen would have trained the apprentices coming up through the ranks today. As a result, there are many installers today whose skill set is below par, experts said.
Under the direction of Humphrey, Tom Jennings, vice president of professional development of the WFCA, and Robert Varden, CEO of CFI, WFCA/CFI has taken ownership of this installation conundrum. “We didn’t take it on because it was easy,” Humphrey said. The primary issues confronting the installation trade are: improving the caliber of training to keep pace with the complexity of today’s flooring, recruiting installers for today and cultivating the next generation.
Raising training standards
The double-edged sword of installation today is that there are too few of them (at least on the residential side) to handle the work, and too many of them lack the necessary high-level training required. Jennings noted the majority of today’s installers entered the field as helpers who needed a paycheck, not because they had any particular skill or passion for the trade. “Unlike sales or management, aptitude tests for entry-level installers are virtually unheard of. We’ve simply got to raise our requirements above warm bodies to raise the trade up from its current state.”
Jennings also believes the industry needs to be more supportive of installation performed well; with no meaningful method of enforcing right from wrong techniques, the emphasis too often resorts to price and speed, leaving little incentive for a job to be performed correctly.
“We can’t blame the installers here–they didn’t create the environment that they must operate in,” he explained. “Earning potential simply must catch up with the times, but only if performance expectations are raised as well. Installation simply can’t all pay the same.”
CFI, for its part, has scheduled more installation workshops and certification training in 2016 than ever before. It plans to have workshops in each of its training cities twice, so if an installer can’t make the first certification training, he will have another opportunity six months later.
“Opportunities to advance skill levels will be available in 2016 unlike in any year in my memory,” Jennings said. “But they will only be as effective as attendance allows. This will require a commitment from all stakeholders.”
INSTALL, the International Standards and Training Alliance, has been committed to next-generation recruitment, apprenticeship and career-long training for many decades. Through its parent organization, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, INSTALL can take advantage of several recruiting programs.
Among them is a high school outreach program: Career Connections. This school-based program is designed specifically for high school students to introduce them to the craft and trade of carpentry.
“Students learn skills, but they also learn about the trade as an admirable career choice,” said John McGrath, director, INSTALL. “We attend career fairs at local high schools, trade schools and construction career programs where many students are unaware of our existence and help them make a more educated decision about their future.”
Then there is Helmets to Hardhats, a program that puts veterans on the fast track to apprenticeship and a career. Veterans discharging out of the service can find the training that leads to good-paying jobs as union carpenters and flooring installers.
Lastly, INSTALL’s Pre-Apprenticeships program, which was established more than 20 years ago, was created as a way to introduce prospective candidates to the floor covering profession. Participants begin the program by performing the less skill-intensive tasks involved in an installation such as deliveries, removal of old flooring and the moving of furniture within occupied spaces, which allows the skilled installers to attend to the tasks that demand advanced skills and experience.
While INSTALL is involved in expansive recruitment and extensive training, it has found that thorough experience, career-long decisions and commitments cannot be taken lightly. “It is helpful to have an orientation process so the installer can become a productive professional,” McGrath stated.
Installers are not the only ones who stand to gain from the program. Benefits for employers include greater productivity, performance and safety. According to Keith Jutkins, INSTALL Chicago Coordinator, 97% of the successful pre-apprentices go on to graduate from the floor covering apprenticeship program. “They learn to look at our craft as a career and not just a job,” he said.
While there are obvious differences in a union (INSTALL) and non-union (specialty retail), Jennings believes there is clearly a significant need for new blood in the flooring industry, to test the capacities of both organizations—differences notwithstanding.
“INSTALL’s model is for a three- to four-year apprenticeship,” he explained. “While this is admirable, we are seeing an immediate need among our members that is demanding a much more accelerated response on our part.”
Industry associations are also pursuing other avenues to attract installers. For instance, WFCA has contacted all four branches of the military in an effort to recruit service members following their deployment. However, Humphrey said the challenge is the veterans groups do not want to pay for the training, and they want guaranteed job placement. He also said WFCA/CFI has to be careful not to run afoul of the new Department of Labor guidance on misclassification of an employee vs. IC. For example, if an entity pays or even partially subsidizes a person’s training, that individual is now considered an employee of that entity.
The CFI, with funding from WFCA, is opening training schools that will continue to train and certify installers and serve as recruiting centers. By the middle of 2016, CFI expects to have four schools operational, including three by March.
Humphrey acknowledges that schools alone will not solve the problem; it will take a collective effort on the part of manufacturers, distributors and retailers. “We’re at a point where there is pain for everyone,” he said. “The window is now. If we don’t get with it, we encourage the mills to create products that are easy to install.”
Industry members believe that could prove the death knell for specialty dealers if they could no longer offer quality installation as a differentiator.
Flooring dealers who are part of a large retail buying group, such as CCA Global, have the ability to pay more for installation because they have more purchasing power. The flip side is these dealers must use high-caliber installers because they offer lifetime installation guarantees.
“We have been looking at the installation crisis for quite some time,” Spano said, noting Flooring America is working on a program to address the issue of next-generation recruitment. “It’s an issue we’re taking very seriously.”