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Installation: Flooring dealers grapple with tight labor market

February 19/26, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 18

By Ken Ryan

 

A strengthening economy coupled with an increasingly tight labor market—with unemployment at 4.1% nationally—has exacerbated the installation crisis for many dealers, observers say. The issue has forced some to turn work away because of a scarcity of crews, while others are having to pay substandard mechanics more just to retain them.

While flooring dealers say business is still up in 2018, they believe the installation challenge is stunting this growth. “Our business is being affected in three ways,” John Taylor, president of Taylor Carpet One, Fort Myers, Fla., told FCNews. “First, the shortage of labor is affecting our growth. Second, because of the shortage, our labor prices are going up because [installers] know there is a shortage. Lastly, the quality of the installers out there has gone down drastically, and the workmanship is not where it should be. This will continue unless we all somehow pull together and figure out a way to recruit and train people for our trade. Not everyone is meant for college and there is a great opportunity installing if it is done the right way.”

Such a tough labor market makes finding skilled workers more difficult in sectors like flooring installation. As such, some dealers are forced to pass on certain jobs, unable to fulfill their customers’ needs. In other cases, wages appear to be rising even for mediocre installers. “Unfortunately, I only see this problem getting worse as our labor force is aging—unless we can get the next generation interested in the trades,” said Josh Elder, owner of Gainesville CarpetsPlus Color Tile, Florida.

For Carlton Billingsley, owner of Floors and More, Benton, Ark., the labor market is challenging his business to be more strategic, particularly on the commercial side as he picks and chooses which partners to work with. However, as the backlog grows, his business suffers. Rather than bemoan his situation, Billingsley has a solution he believes will pay off. “We are creatively working with other skilled/non-skilled laborers to learn flooring skills to grow with our business. We continue to invest in training at manufacturer facilities, our facility and in our regional area, too, to diversify the mechanics’ skill set so they can do different types of flooring. This way we can accelerate our growth together.”

Due to the shortage of qualified installers, Tim Schoolfield, owner of CountrySide Flooring America, O’Fallon, Mo., said he is “less confident” these days in spite of an improving economy. “I am less confident we can get flooring installed in a timely fashion or in the ability of new hires to exceed the expectations of an increasingly demanding customer,” he explained.

That sentiment was shared by other flooring dealers such as Cathy Buchanan, owner of Independent Carpet One Floor & Home, Westland, Mich. “It is an uneasy feeling to sell high-quality woven products, hardwood, LVT, laminate, etc., not knowing if you’re going to overwhelm your existing installation crews,” she said. “And then once their knees give way—who do you have? Having a back-up plan just isn’t the case today. No offense to millennials, they just aren’t driven to the challenge of such a difficult job. And when talking about the sales floor, office/support staff, [they] seem to get bored quickly and look for a better position.”

What’s regrettable, Buchanan added, is the flooring retail industry should be primed for growth. “There is so much opportunity in our field of retail—not so much with the shopping centers—because Amazon can’t quite get the touchy-feely experience of buying carpet. People have an opportunity to make a lot of money selling and even more so by installing, and also taking pride in the field of installation. It’s a scary thought.”