January 20/27, 2014; Volume 27/Number 19
By Ken Ryan
While the years-long recession thinned the ranks of independent flooring retailers, it also rid the industry of many experienced and qualified installers. Now that we are in recovery mode, the flooring world is left with a dilemma—a dwindling supply of quality installers and the uncertainty of where the next generation will come from.
“I say that installation is the DNA of your business; that’s where the fingerprints can be found because the products are largely the same,” said Tom Jennings, vice president of member services, World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), and an expert on installation. “Then you ask yourself, ‘How important is [installation] for me?’ Maybe the industry thinks there is an installer tree out there and installers will simply fall out.”
According to Olga Robertson, president of FCA Network, the lack of good, qualified installers will impact everyone’s business, and that will be more noticeable as business improves. “I don’t know what the answer is, but you would think the flooring industry would be addressing this issue. Since when did it become pejorative to send your son or daughter to a trade school? You can make six figures installing tile and hardwood—even carpet. Kids are coming out of college in debt up to their eyeballs with no jobs in sight. They’re working for $13 to $15 an hour; you can’t move out of your parents’ home on that salary.”
The challenges facing installation—and for that matter, the entire industry—are multi-layered: 1) many of the good installers left the industry during the recession, never to return; 2) the good ones who remain are getting older and nearing retirement; 3) installation is more complex and specialized than ever before, making proper training crucial (moreover, not every installer is willing to miss a day’s pay for training); and, perhaps the most important, 4) where is the next generation coming from? On that last point, there is no clear remedy.
“It is scary, quite frankly,” Jennings said. “It is a problem I don’t see getting better. We need to somehow take some ownership of a product after it leaves the tail end of a truck. That may be wishful thinking on my part.”
Several dealers said the industry needs to come up with a way to attract the next generation, be it out of high school or the military, with the pitch that there are plenty of jobs available, the money is good, and it’s an honorable way to make a living.
“It is hard work, but so too are a lot of other things,” Jennings continued. “On the other hand, it’s not dangerous. No one fell to their death laying a floor, or froze to death laying a floor. It’s a better industry than we are painting a picture of. We don’t make it memorable.”
Jim Walters, president and co-owner of Macco’s Floor Covering Center with six Wisconsin locations, uses both in-house installers and subcontractors. “It’s really difficult to get a young person to recognize this is a rewarding trade, but it’s not just difficult in floor covering,” he said. “We’ve lost a generation of people who think the trades are somehow not a good route to go.”
Despite the financial potential, the appeal for installation jobs is just not there for Millennials. David Stover, vice president of sales at Grigsby’s Carpets & Tile, Tulsa, Okla., said some of his crews gross $150,000 and up, but he still doesn’t see a desire to get involved from today’s younger generation. “It very well may be a stigma or that kids do not want to work as hard as they used to. It seems like a lot of youths today expect to make $65,000 at their first job and do not think they have to work very hard to attain it. For a younger person who has a good work ethic and doesn’t want to be tied to a desk, it’s not a bad gig.”
Specialization and training
Despite the ongoing challenge of finding and retaining qualified installers, retailers continue to say they cannot lower their standards in any aspect, whether it is the technical demands of the installation or the personality and professionalism of the installer.
“We try to set the bar higher and stay on top of it in terms of what we ask of our installers,” Walters said. “We have to keep in mind these installers are guests in our customers’ houses, and we need to make sure we’re not sending in the wrong people.”
Stover added, “With the shortage of quality installers, the good ones are constantly booked. Relying on untested tradesmen only leads to more problems. You have to draw the line between hurrying a job to completion to meet a deadline and still retaining the quality you pride yourself on.”
The need for qualified installers comes at a time when installation methods are becoming more technical and fine-tuned. “Today’s carpet is like people—every one of them is different and unique,” said Jim Walker, founder and CEO of Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI). “The problem is installers don’t take the time to get educated on the nuances of the product because it is a losing proposition for them to be missing a day’s work to be trained. They don’t want to take a day out of their schedule and pay for training.”
Dave Snedecker, division merchandise manager at Nebraska Furniture Mart in Omaha, said finding qualified installers is a constant battle even, for larger dealers. “It is imperative that we support efforts to train and develop interested parties in this field.”
Proper guidance and communicating expectations is critical to ensuring a professional installation, according to Jerry Salge, director of operations, O’Krent’s Abbey Flooring Center, San Antonio. “It is important to establish a trusting and amicable relationship in order to work as a team toward the end result. A respectful teamwork attitude is essential in order to retain quality installers.”
As with others, Salge acknowledged there are fewer individuals today that seem interested in learning the trade and developing the skills necessary to become a quality installer, which has forced dealers to dig deeper. “We rely on the existing installer pool to train their helpers to become mechanics. Retailers that employ subcontractors are mostly unwilling or incapable of instituting a training program for hourly or in-house installers to learn the proper skills without the assistance of a subcontractor.”
My Flooring America co-CEO/owner Kelby Frederick said in the Dallas and Houston markets the problem isn’t finding crews, it’s whether they can pass a screening process that requires a criminal background check, proper insurances and/or documentation to comply with IRS regulations.
He said securing qualified crews often means paying a premium. “We find that allows us a much better talent pool of subcontractors to work with. Our goal is to make our installation services our competitive advantage in the market as we believe customers always remember the quality of the installation experience much more than a cheap price or discount.”
Last October, the WFCA launched a nationwide flooring installation-training showcase underwritten by the organization and overseen and taught by the CFI. The initiative calls for the WFCA to sponsor six regional training programs and offer installation coursework on every flooring category. CFI instructors provide the training in carpet (in accordance with the upcoming ANSI S600 Carpet Installation Standards), carpet installation inspection (including application, demonstrations and problem solving), ceramic, resilient, laminate and wood.
Jon Pierce, general manager, Pierce Flooring & Design with multiple locations in Montana, said the WFCA-CFI collaboration is a great and important initiative, but the industry collectively must do more, at least in terms of generating new blood in the field.
Pierce suggested subsidizing a trade school or technical college. “We need to recruit through the school system. It’s no different than training a welder or mechanic. We need to recruit and train the younger generations. I know it can work. It takes time, effort and focus to make it happen with manufacturers and associations working together.”
According to Stover, he and fellow dealers have discussed putting on trade clinics, which, with the help of manufacturers, could help promote and sponsor teaching seminars as a way of attracting the next generation.
As of now, Walker said the issue of installation would not become a priority until it prevents sales from occurring. Only then will it become an industry-wide focus.
The consequences of a dwindling pool of qualified installers is already impacting retailers, according to Jennings, who knows of some salespeople who have gotten fed up and left the industry. “Why work hard to qualify and then sell a customer on a beautiful floor for her home, only to have a subcontractor with no ties to the store do a poor job and then not be held accountable? The salespeople promise customers certain results and have very little knowledge about who is laying the floor.”