Q&A with CFI's Robert Varden
I can remember a senior carpet industry executive in the late 1970s expressing concern that there were not sufficient numbers of installers in the country to install carpet. From the looks of it, little has changed. In fact, if anything, the floor covering installation problem has gotten worse.
I’ve talked with many retailers around the country who say they do not personally have an installation problem. Most of them either decided to put installers on their payroll or just pay them a little more than the competition. But these people are in the minority. This fix is far from widespread.
We spoke with someone at the frontlines of trying to solve this issue—Robert Varden, an accomplished installer, an entrepreneur, a contractor, an educator and executive director of the International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI). We invited Varden to talk about the installation situation in the industry and the actions CFI is taking to deal with the situation. You can listen to this entire conversation on the TalkFloor.com website in the Floor Radio archives. The following are excerpts from this conversation.
TF: How would you describe the situation we’re experiencing in the floor covering industry with regard to the shortage of installers and the basic skill level of the installers on the job?
Varden: It used to be that I would get a call from a retailer who was having problems finding installers and having to deal with long wait times to schedule jobs. I received maybe one of these calls a month. In the last six months and in recent weeks, I get at least one of these calls every week.
As for the skill level, unfortunately because the industry is in a reactive mode, retailers and contractors are telling me that they are sending individuals out to install jobs they would never have thought about sending out on a job a year or two ago. Their skill sets are nowhere near what is required for completing the job correctly. And this practice is coming back to bite them. Retailers and contractors are hiring people who say they are installers and it’s only after a job or two when it’s discovered that they just don’t have the set of skills to be installers.
TF: Do installers, for the most part, work primarily in one sector, either residential or commercial?
Varden: We see people in training all the time that say they do both. Usually what they mean is they do Main Street commercial. They are not really doing what I would categorize as commercial, such as airports, hospitals, large office complexes—the type of jobs a legitimate commercial contractor does. And coming from running two commercial workrooms myself, one in Dallas and one in the Bay Area, you get an installer who is truly a commercial installer, he dislikes doing residential. They are geared for wide-open spaces and gluing product to the floor.
TF: Are the installer-related problems more prominent in one sector, or are they pretty much equal?
Varden: It is pretty much equal, and that comes from working with several associations including CCA [Global], Starnet and others. I’m hearing the same thing from both sides.
TF: Do commercial installers make pretty much the same amount of money that residential installers make?
Varden: It really depends on their setup, but typically members of a commercial crew will make more money than members of a residential crew.
TF: Are members of a commercial crew typically employees or are they usually subcontractors?
Varden: All of the individuals that have worked for my workrooms over the years have been employees. However, I know a number of commercial contractors, and on average, I would say the majority of large commercial contractors have subcontractor installers working for them.
TF: How has the rate of pay for installers changed over the years?
Varden: I was moving my home office and found some of my old price lists, and I’ll say that our workrooms charged a little more than the competition. I found price lists from the mid-1990s though 1999 that had higher rates than what many retailers and commercial contractors are charging today.
TF: In your travels, have you found retailers that are frequently paying installers more than the going rates in their towns?
Varden: I don’t know if I can use the word frequently, but I do find retailers that do this. As I look at retailers in certain areas around the country that are extremely successful and I look at the installation groups that are working for them—whether they have converted them to employees or whether that are subcontractors—they are by far paying more than most in their market and are very successful doing it.
There is a formula for paying more and being very successful. With the internet and social media and the rapid spread of information, too many consumers have had a bad experience with flooring purchases [and are not shy about sharing it]. Many times, that bad experience is related to workmanship. So if retailers are not using installation as a marketing tool to help differentiate themselves, then shame on them.
TF: I interviewed John McGrath, the executive director of INSTALL, at NeoCon recently. INSTALL is primarily involved with commercial installations and it’s affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. I learned the organization does not have recruitment or training problems.
The INSTALL model involves a network of contractors. INSTALL has agreements with these contractors to pay installers at a specified rate, some of which is earmarked for continuous training. What are your thoughts on this model?
Varden: John is a friend of mine and he has done a phenomenal job since he has taken over INSTALL to further that cause. INSTALL has great training facilities and a very solid structure behind them, but the residential market is a very tough area for them to tap into. They are primarily commercial, though they have been able to break into some residential markets.
The vast majority of this industry is non-union, however. My role with CFI is to train these guys to be able to do better work, better represent themselves, be better business people if that’s what they want to do, and in the process provide a better living for their families. Whether it’s a union or non-union road, or a subcontractor road, it really doesn’t matter.
We can recruit more individuals into this industry. The CFI has a platform to recruit: we work with different school programs, counseling programs, veterans’ programs, but unfortunately we don’t have the staff and the funding to carry out this function. We have communicated with manufacturers and mills. I see them spend so much money in so many different categories, but unfortunately the category where most of the issues and the largest crises exist with their customers is with installers, installation and training. If these manufacturers really want to help the retailer, the dealer and the installer, we have to find people that can come together to help, even if it’s not with CFI.
TF: CFI has opened a permanent training facility in Texas and has a variety of training and certification opportunities for installers at all levels. Expand on some of those options.
Varden: If you look back at our 23-year history, most of what we have done has been training and certification. We have traveled around the country doing training and certifying installers to their ability. We certify in all categories: carpet, hardwood, laminate, ceramic tile and resilient.
As we have seen the industry get more desperate for installers, we knew we had to change direction and start a school where we can bring candidates in and train them from scratch. Our residential and commercial certifications are for installers with at least two years of experience. So, we have developed a five-week residential program and we’re looking now at a seven-week commercial program.
People can balk, saying you can’t train a person to become an installer in five weeks. I beg to differ. It’s amazing what you can do with an individual when you are physically with them showing them how to hold a specific tool, to push that tool and how to work the tool in general.
We have trained for 23 years so we feel the techniques we use are the best in the business. We have testimonials from many of the retailers who have worked with CFI graduates from the five-week residential course and they say they are amazing. Students on a daily basis are working on their knees in 8’ by 8’ modules with instructors. We also have a three-bedroom home layout, and as students progress we have them working in that layout. We also have programs with local retailers so by the time students get into their second and third week, we’re actually taking them out on actual jobs.
We had a couple of students who came down from Chicago and by the fifth week, they were installing the three-bedroom module. When they left that residential platform, they had the skill set and the confidence to install base-grade material in a basic three-bedroom home.
TF: How do the students find their way to the school? Do retailers or contractors send them, or are they there on their own?
Varden: In the case of the two from Chicago, they were sent by retailers. We find that the current situation with most retailers is they don’t have students to send. We are working on ways of recruiting candidates.
On the placement side, we are getting calls from retailers, workrooms and contractors who want our graduates. Unfortunately we don’t have enough help on the front side. We don’t have the funding and we don’t have the scholarships to get individuals into the school. They are out there, however.
In too many instances, I run into kids fresh out of high school who do not want to go to college, and they have been sitting around the house playing video games. Their mothers would almost pay the tuition. The tuition to complete the five-week course is close to $5,000. We’re currently putting together programs to finance a major portion of the tuition. We’re also looking at ways of taking the program mobile, to defray the cost of living expenses.
TF: If a candidate could attend this five-week course knowing that they could have a job at the other end, would that change things?
Varden: I don’t know if it would. Right now we can place graduates. The bigger problem is recruiting on the front side. The individuals are out there and they can be recruited, but unfortunately we just don’t have the staff and the funding to do that. Unfortunately the industry is for some reason not getting behind this effort and supporting it.
The staff at CFI totals four people. We have gotten great support from several distributors and tool manufacturers and I can’t express how grateful we are for that support. However, I recently had a meeting with a very large manufacturer and they said it was admirable what we are doing but they could not support the effort. I had to make the following comment, “Let me understand this correctly. CFI is attempting to recruit and train individuals to go out and install products that you manufacture, but at this time this is not something you can support?”
Sometimes I think it would be a sound idea to take CFI and make a massive network of installers, form a national installation company, charge what should be charged and think more of ourselves than the industry as a whole does.
TF: I recall talking with retailers who appeared to be very excited about the CFI installation schools and they seemed very eager to send candidates, but these candidates just never materialized. What happened?
Varden: We see this every day. I can tell countless stories where we get called into a particular area where a group of retailers recognize their need for more installers. They tell us we will probably have to run two classes back-to-back because we won’t be able to fit all of the student into one class. As a result we agree to the number of classes required. Fast forward three months to the actual day we are doing the training, and it’s one class with 12 students. The retailer’s response is most often, “We were so backed up we couldn’t afford to take them out of the field.”
I’m a fan of Steve Covey and his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In that book, he tells a story of a man meeting another man who has been attempting to saw down a tree for hours. The first man says, “Have you ever thought about stopping for a few minutes to sharpen your saw?”
TF: We discussed the INSTALL model of essentially having workrooms around the country that would hire installers and make them available to local retailers. Would a setup like this over time help solve the problem? You don’t seem to be getting help from manufacturers and are probably not going to.
Varden: I keep thinking things will change and we will ultimately get industry support. I see changes going forward in another area involving installers. This one involves the employee versus independent contractor description as defined by the government. That situation is putting a great deal of fear in the retail community. So I see a situation where a retailer is either going to have to convert installers to employees or there is going to have to be some type of setup for a large workroom. Whether this is a good thing? It’s too early to tell.
Editor’s note: As mentioned, there is more to this conversation than space permits. Check out the entire interview by visiting www.TalkFloor.com and clicking on the Floor Radio tab.
We’d love to hear your feedback of this and other conversations you’ve watched or listened to on the site, as well as any people or companies you’d like to see interviewed. You can contact Dave Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org.