By Jim Aaron, executive director, Floor Covering Education Foundation
A lot has been said recently about the “installation crisis” in the flooring industry. But what exactly does that scary-sounding term mean? It simply refers to the growing lack of qualified installers needed to install the floors that are being sold. I’ve heard people grumble about the lack of qualified installers for most of my 35 years in the industry. But over the last several years, the situation has escalated from a mere nuisance to a real crisis.
Background: In 2019, the Floor Covering Leadership Council commissioned the Blackstone Group, a research firm out of Chicago, to do extensive research on the issue. After months of research, they found the flooring industry is experiencing a net loss of between 5,000 and 6,000 installers per year. They also studied the reasons as to why and found several culprits: a societal emphasis on attending college rather than entering the trades, lack of awareness of the opportunity that exists, and a general absence of a training curriculum to educate new installers, among others.
As a result of those findings, the World Floor Covering Association’s Board of Directors created a separate entity, a foundation, to address the issue. In December 2019, an announcement was made regarding the formation of the Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF). I’m proud to be the Executive Director of this foundation.
The mission of the FCEF is to: provide awareness of the job opportunities and career pathways available in the floor covering industry, improve the perception of those pathways, connect individuals to training opportunities, create scholarships for that training, and place those individuals in jobs within the floor covering industry. It’s a big task—but it’s absolutely doable.
In the first six months, the Foundation has already started addressing many of the root causes of the crisis identified in the Blackstone report. Progress is being made on many fronts, but it will take a concerted industry effort to make any significant and lasting change. By a “concerted industry effort,” I mean that anyone and everyone who benefits from the flooring industry has a responsibility to help solve this crisis. That includes manufacturers and distributors of product, big box retailers, mom and pop independent retail stores, large commercial contractors, and individuals that currently employ floor covering installers. We all have a role to play.
In my first six weeks in my role, I was asked to speak to a group of high school juniors and seniors in Bryan, Texas, about the opportunities a career in flooring installation could provide. These young people were enrolled in their high school’s general construction course of study. I began my presentation by confirming that each of the students had already made a decision to pursue a trade career. I then asked how many of the 50 or so students were considering flooring installation. The answer: none! Digging deeper, I discovered they had never even thought about it. They weren’t aware that it was an option. One student memorably asked, “Flooring installer…that’s a thing?”
The Foundation has partnered with a marketing firm to address our awareness issue. We will be working with high school guidance counselors, career fair organizers, and workforce development organizations. We’re even going to develop a target social media campaign. Our campaigns will feature actual flooring installation professionals telling our target audience why they should consider a flooring installation career path.
Once we have individuals raising their hand and saying, “Ok, sounds cool! What do I do next?” we’re going to partner them with one of our approved training entities and scholarship their training. Currently, the Foundation’s scholarships are available for introductory classes with CFI, NWFA and CTEF. A full calendar of training events that qualify for scholarships is available on the Foundation’s website, www.fcef.org.
The absence of a flooring installation course of study in technical colleges and trade schools is also a contributing factor to the crisis. Therefore, we are working in collaboration with CFI, NWFA and CTEF to create a six-month (330 credit hours) curriculum that can be implemented in trade schools nationwide. The Technical College System of Georgia will be the first to implement this in the Winter 2021 semester. From there we will work with the proper agencies in other states to expand this initiative.
In closing, consider this: When the pandemic shutdowns were at their worst, many businesses closed their offices and many employees started to work from home. In just a couple of months, it seemed like everyone was using Zoom to teleconference and continue to work. By June 2020, Zoom was seeing 300 million daily meeting participants, compared to 10 million a year earlier. Zoom became a necessity to doing business. Just as Zoom is still a necessity for many businesses, flooring installers are an absolute necessity to the flooring industry! The vast majority of residential flooring is sold and installed through independent stores. Professional sales and installation are the primary competitive advantages these mom-and-pops have over their big box competition. Without the pipeline of professional installers being constantly filled, the independent retailer is in serious jeopardy of falling behind.
So what’s my message to you, the professional flooring installer? I mentioned earlier that everyone has a role to play in solving the crisis. I see your role as one of being an example to the next generation, but also one of recruitment. If only half of you recruited a friend, neighbor or relative into this career path, the crisis would be solved in record time. Remember my message about the vital role you play in the success of this industry. Be proud of that—and then price your work accordingly. Your prices should rise when demand is high and supply is low. Higher wages will also increase the appeal to new recruits.
Working together, we can make a real difference. Success will depend on all of us—and especially you!