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Feast or famine? Dealers stretch to find talent as labor pool shrinks

January 7/14, 2019: Volume 34, Issue 16

By Ken Ryan

 

A decade after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the United States finds itself at a place where almost everyone who wants a job can find one. A newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics report put the current jobless rate at 3.9%—up slightly from 3.7% in December 2018.

In addition, the expanded unemployment rate, which includes people still statistically tethered to the labor force as deemed by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as those seeking full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, is now 7.5%. Both unemployment measures are well below pre-recession levels, and the official unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 49 years. What’s more, the number of job openings exceeds the number of job seekers—a clear-cut sign of a very tight labor market.

Tight labor markets are likely to persist, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which reported that over the next decade, as baby boomers retire, the labor force will expand by 0.5% annually, roughly one-third as fast as it did between 1950 and 2016.

Of course, the flooring industry doesn’t need to read a CBO report to know things are tight. Whether it’s finding a retail sales associate, warehouse worker or installer, dealers have their work cut out. The issue is especially acute with regard to installation, where a shortage of able mechanics has forced many dealers to postpone or pass on projects because they could not fulfill the job, did not want to disappoint their customers with delays or simply refused to lower their standards and go with less-than-qualified installers.

Some of those dealers who have found success offered a few of their go-to strategies:

A little creativity goes a long way
Nebraska Furniture Mart, which employs more than 5,000 people at its three locations in the U.S., has many positions to fill. “Our response has been to get creative and not wait for someone else to solve the issue,” David Chambers, NFM’s director of flooring, told FCNews. “A great example in one of our regions is we have partnered with a local community college and created a flooring installation course. The students receive the basic knowledge about flooring installation and are even given a basic set of tools through a GAP grant. It is being taught in our warehouse by our own installation managers. We have already experienced some success with some of the students coming out of the course.”

Nebraska Furniture Mart started the course in the first quarter of 2018 and has already had students “graduate” to where they are partnering with an existing crew to continue their learning before branching out on their own.

While certainly not as elaborate in scale as NFM, Enhance Floors & More, Marietta, Ga., has enjoyed success with installation needs on the hard surface side by assisting “helpers” to improve their skills so they can eventually become crew leaders. As an incentive, the retailer has increased pay to its hard surface installers.

When it comes to carpet, it’s a different story. “No one seems to have any interest in learning about carpet installation,” Elisabeth Stubbs, owner, told FCNews.“As this generation of carpet installers retires, I have no idea how we as an industry will replace them.”

Aggressive recruiting
Kevin Rose, the owner of Carpetland stores in Rockford and Sycamore, Ill., as well as America’s Flooring Store in Arlington Heights, is always on a mission to find outstanding installers. His team aggressively recruits via supply houses and word of mouth. “Installers are willing to tell you about other good installers as long as they know their job is secure,” Rose told FCNews.

Fortunately, his business has consistently been able to attract and retain good floor layers. He typically runs anywhere from 10 to 80 union employees for the commercial division and 20 to 60 subs for the retail division.

“Having the highest workload in town gives us an advantage, as the installers know they will have work throughout the winter when other stores slow down,” Rose explained. “Keeping them happy and letting them know you will always back them up as long as they are performing perfect work is key. Installers want to be respected and acknowledged as part of the team. They are an integral part of our business as they are an extension of the store and the last person the customer comes in contact with.”

At the Vertical Connection Carpet One in Columbia, Md., Adam Joss, co-owner, isn’t too concerned about a competitive labor market. The unemployment rate in his city rests at 3.5%, which is even lower than the national average.

“The good employees were never unemployed to begin with—good or bad economy—so it’s just a matter of finding good people in bad companies and offering them a better opportunity. It’s important to find young talent that you can develop.”

You get what you pay for
Nick Freadreacea, owner of The Flooring Gallery, with six locations in the Louisville, Ky., market, is another dealer who is on a constant mission for good labor. “The installation shortage is at epic proportions for the flooring industry; therefore, we are constantly looking for qualified people to service our customer base. Our labor rates have increased three times in the past 18 months, and we’re willing to pay for better installation in our areas. This has never happened since I’ve been in the industry.”

There are a fortunate few where finding good help never seems to be an issue. Case in point is D&M Flooring America, Appleton, Wis., where its best new hires have come from existing staff referrals—and for good reason. “Our installation crew and sales/design staff are all paid an hourly rate with a full benefits package,” said Bill Huss, owner. “We’re always searching for good additions to our team and have had luck training the newer employees internally. Our key to retaining people has been trying to create a family environment at work that allows every employee a chance to flourish to his or her full potential.”