Will We Ever Get It (Installation) Right?

By Jim Walker, American Floor Covering Institute

As an industry, we must require accountability to protect the customer otherwise no one is placing a value on installation.
As an industry, we must require accountability to protect the customer otherwise no one is placing a value on installation.

The topic of flooring installation almost has its own season. Every year for generations, we have the same discussion concerning the shortage of installers, now it’s a “crisis!” I am still convinced the problem will be solved when the manufacturers have the last say as to how their flooring is installed and hold everyone’s feet to the fire to make this happen. They reserve the right and the obligation to lead the way in solving this “installation crisis.” They manufacture the product and should be proud of the manner in which it is installed.

In most cases today, when a dealer meets an installer, their first question is “How much do you charge?” The installer responds, “How much are you paying?” instead of “What type of job am I installing?” There is no pride in caring about the customer. Manufacturers have the responsibility to change this scenario and demand qualifications. This will drive the wannabee installers out because customer service, training and certification will mean something.

Millions of dollars have been spent to no avail on this problem, from meeting after meeting and numerous donations to training programs without a path to success. Why is there always money for these efforts, but just minimal amounts put toward the real problem?

We all need to recognize the manufacturers set the guidelines, promote these to their customers and put the responsibility exactly where it falls  By doing this, they have ceased the customer accommodation situation that leads to a non-professional workforce where the dealer/contractor has the mentality of “How cheap and how fast?”

Here’s the overall installation situation with all segments involved in the solution.

First, the flooring manufacturers should work closely with training entities; such as CFI, INSTALL, NWFA, TCNA and the RFCI. Understanding that each manufacturer has unique products, the installers must present verification that will introduce them to the retail community. The form of verification will state they are qualified to install according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. Anytime a retailer, architect, general contractor or other party elects not to hire a verified installer, they assume liability related to installation with no accommodation adjustments from the manufacturers.

The dealers’ responsibility is to hire installers who are recognized as qualified by the manufacturer. The installer’s responsibility is to obtain this accreditation by attending training recognized by the manufacturer. This completely eliminates any individual who does not possess manufacturer approval and it should lead to increased wages.

In 1994, I presented this scenario to the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). After a long discussion, the consensus of everyone present was to adopt the proposal and allow three years for every party to be prepared. It was decided that one-half of 1% of each square yard of carpet produced would fund the three-year training operation. In less than 24 hours after the meeting, it was cancelled.  Why?  Just think, we would have been well on our way to a brighter future for all parties. I truly believe some in the industry are of the opinion if we just wait until next year to talk about it, the qualified installer shortage will go away. It didn’t happen and it will not happen.

Also in 1994, it was decided that should an installation problem occur, the manufacturer would request proof of the installation credentials. If a certificate was not available, the installer, dealer, contractor, architect or other party accepted full responsibility. We set out to make this happen in three years. Folks, that was 21 years ago.

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More Training Without New Compensation Model Won’t Work

Why train new installers that will enter a field with the lowest construction segment compensation? In other trades, if one attends advanced training their pay scale will increase. This is not so with flooring installation! It is critical to address installer compensation to attract new installers. Without a pathway to higher wages, younger people will not join the trained installer pool.

Second, the active flooring installation community should establish a committee and publish a suggested price list for the various types of installation services based on certain criteria. This would give the dealers/contractors a guide to price installation services, much like the automobile and other construction industries have in place. The guide would consider time, talent and product installation specifics in establishing the pricing. This does mean that all installations would be priced the same; it is up to installers to know their individual cost, but it does place a value on installation, which for the most part is not available today.

This type of procedure would encourage installers to obtain the qualifications they want to install the selected types of flooring. This would also encourage dealers who are concerned about their customers and their business to seek a qualified installer.

It will take time to put a program like this in place. A time period of 36 months would allow the training entities recognized by the manufacturers to be prepared.  Retailers would have time to seek qualified installers for employment and plan for a manufacturer-accepted workforce. The process will encourage manufacturers to ship only first-quality merchandise if it were purchased, and time for installers to understand the role they play in presenting themselves as a business entity if they are not employees, which I maintain is the best scenario to offer installation to our customers.  

I have advocated this for years to enhance the installation segment and encourage installers to increase their incomes and bring others into the trade. The industry must understand that starting work at 7a.m. and working until the late evening is not a normal working schedule.

I recognize that a few manufacturers have taken the initiative to implement some forward-thinking ideas. But, as an industry we must require accountability to protect the customer otherwise no one is placing a value on installation.

When we get serious and implement ideas that work, the manufacturers will have control of their products and recognize those who are qualified in flooring installation. It can be done when all parties sincerely want to address the problem.

Third, every segment can make more money! Flooring installation is a custom trade! No two jobs are identical. So, why is the “One Price Fits All” model for labor still prevalent in this business? The airlines figured it out. No two people pay the same price even though they are going to the same place and  could be sitting next to each other. Consider the additional charges for luggage, seat location, and food the airlines generate. Believe me, there is money to be made by changing to an individual pricing model incorporating add-on pricing.

When installers and dealers learn this the profit margins will escalate. People will pay when we make it exciting to purchase and offer confidence in a job well done. Dealers and installers cannot quote a price without knowing the type of product or how it is to be installed.

CFI started 23 years ago. One of its main goals was to gain respect for a job well done and receive pay commensurate with the work performed. Installers were leaving the trade to earn more money elsewhere. Now, the crisis is worse and it is still so easy to solve because respect and true business relationships that serve both parties will solve this shortage problem.

All dealers are not experiencing a crisis. You know why? The successful dealers understand flooring installation and they genuinely care about the future of those who represent them as installers and their sales staff knows how to sell and promote professional installation. It’s such an easy fix. I am aware of workrooms that are hiring more installers as employees, paying benefits that include paid taxes, retirement and vacation time and becoming actively involved in training. They will see an increase in job seekers. Word spreads in this industry.

I also know installers who are more comfortable and excited about their careers than ever because they have learned how to market themselves. Gary Goessl of Wisconsin recently contacted me saying he loves his job; he is making money! He called to thank me for this as have many others. But too often, installers are their own worst enemies. If Joe will install the floor for $5; Sam will charge $4.50. Unfortunately, it is not about selling what they can do better; it’s about getting the job without knowing the costs involved. This is part of the reason we are in this mess. Everyone has played a role.

With just a small change of dealers and installers beginning to charge for extras, the bottom line will increase substantially. If we want new faces in this trade, we must make it profitable. Today, for most installers, it is not.

If the hours worked, the type of job, the cost of time and material were fairly paid, young people would be rushing to the door looking for work. According to a recent Forbes article, “America’s Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom as Most-in-Demand Group of Workers Age,” it was stated that a starting wage for someone with minimal skills should be about $12-$15an hour. Moderate skills should earn $15-$20; and skilled workers could surpass $30 per hour.

According to Harvard University research, “An older worker’s experience increases not only his own productivity but also the productivity of those who work with him.” All else equal, experienced workers are more productive. One study found that productivity peaks at age 50, when productivity is 60% higher than for the average 20 year-old.” We are running out of the older worker who will train others.

Retraining on the Sales Floor

Sales associates need to understand how they can increase their sales by building partnerships and selling installation; estimators don’t understand installation and overlook items that are costly, take additional time and they expect the installer to throw in extras. Dealers find it difficult to lead the way and  the majority pay as little as possible to get it in. It’s time for change  and some new ideas. There are ways to change and reward professional flooring installation in a manner that everybody wins. More installers will enter the trade because earnings increase and dealers will make more money with a qualified work force.

Sales associates need to understand how they can increase their sales by building partnerships and selling installation.
Sales associates need to understand how they can increase their sales by building partnerships and selling installation.

When we all acknowledge that the installation crisis is everyone’s responsibility our industry can really be able to achieve for the good of all parties.

In my next article, we will discuss ways to increase income.

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