In this space, we have talked about installation repeatedly: the challenges facing independent retailers in the arena of installation and the presumption of many retailers that superior service is their hallmark. And really, if a retailer cannot offer first-rate installation, can they really say they offer superior service? Probably not.
As competition gets tougher, big-box retailers continue to elevate their total level of service—including the level of the installation services they offer. All this is adding up to our big-box brethren increasing their share of the total floor covering market. The quality of installation offered by the big-box home improvement players is rising, and this prompts independents to re-examine their entire approach to installation.
I suspect most retailers subscribe to the idea of selling superior installation as a way to distinguish themselves from the pack, however, when push comes to shove, I don’t think most put this principle in practice. Many factors go into being able to offer first-class installation. The biggest challenge is finding installers with sufficient knowledge and skill, and attracting and training new qualified talent into the installation community is a problem for retailers. Another challenge is that not nearly enough retailers use and hire CFI-certified installers, and they don’t promote their certified installers to consumers on retail websites, ads, signage, in showrooms and in presentations on the sales floor.
That is why we invited Larry Winter of Nichols, Cauley & Associates on TalkFloor.com. Winter has been a guest on the Floor Radio program for over 24 years on matters involving small business, and on top of that, he has been a member of the Georgia State Board of Education for more than a decade creating programs to attract and train young people in the trades. The following are some excerpts of that conversation, which is available in the archives of TalkFloor.com. We encourage you to log on and watch this interview.
TF: We are all aware of the problems and the shortages that exist in all of the trades including the floor covering industry. The shortage of qualified flooring installers, however, predates the recession with fewer young people entering the field and the average age of installers increasing. I am also told that, because of a shift from employee installers several decades ago to a system of primarily independent contractor installers, industry training schools have not been attended as before, and as a result, the knowledge and skill level of many installers has declined. How do you see this problem?
Winter: In general, as a society, we have forgotten how important the trades are. Currently it’s easier to find a brain surgeon than it is a plumber. One of the problems in the system is that high school counselors who have been trained in academia have not gained sufficient background in technical training. They, as a general rule, do not know the jobs in the trades that are out there or what they pay. Within the state of Georgia, only 20% of high school graduates go on to four-year colleges and universities. We need to begin focusing on the remaining 80%. We need to do a better job. Many, many technical jobs pay more than jobs that require a four-year college degree. Look, for example, in the Dalton area. People who can operate the programmable logic controllers that operate all of the multimillion-dollar machinery in the flooring industry make more than teachers. That is because of two factors: one, they sought technical training, and two, they received an industry certification. The industry, starting with the retailer, is going to have to decide what an installer should have to know.
Looking at the state of Georgia, once the industry makes that decision, it’s easy to find a partner. It’s called the Technical College System of Georgia, which has been tasked by the state and by the governor to provide adult education and certification. The need for certification and the requirements of that certification are determined by the employer. In the floor covering industry, it wouldn’t matter if the installer is an employee or an independent. Retailers, however, would be wise to start asking to see installer’s CFI, Certified Flooring Installer, certification, or even make it a requirement to work as either an independent or for employment. Most jobs, after all, do have minimum requirements. It’s good business to ensure a retailer does not get callbacks. The industry should coalesce around what the minimums of installer knowledge and hand skills should be. When one sorts applicants according to their training, they are going to have to pay more for applicants that are trained, but they are most likely going to save that amount when it comes to problems that occur in the field.
TF: I understand that, in many states, vocational schools are not interested in offering classes in fields where graduates are not offered jobs. Opportunities where graduates go into business for themselves as independent contractors, which is the primary system in the floor covering industry, has limited training opportunities in many states.
Winter: I am much more familiar with Georgia than the other 49 states, so I’ll talk about Georgia. The construction industry has an organization similar to CFI called CEFGA, the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, which sets standards in the various trades, and a CEFGA certificate is issued for each of the construction trades, which allows a graduate to get a job anywhere. It is important for employers to come along beside these schools because students in adult education need to see a career path. It is important for the industry to take a stand and inform prospective applicants to know where the training they require is offered. There are organizations similar to CEFGA available in many states. CFI training through the technical colleges of Georgia, Tennessee and other states across the nation could also be available.
TF: The prime advantage that independent retailers offer is superior service, and the major element of that superior service is installation. Controlling the installation process and every part of the installation process is imperative, and many feel that that can be done best if one uses employee installers. What are your thoughts?
Winter: First, we agree that the major premise an independent retailer offers is quality and service. A practice of one of the smartest retailers that I have ever met is the practice that he visits every installation site the afternoon the job is completed and walks through the site with the property owner making sure that everything is the way it should be, and at the same moment, collecting the final check. Getting paid is good news, but the big thing here is if there were any problems, they were handled immediately. If the retailer is sending a certified crew, and the customer knows in advance that a certified crew will be performing the installation, and the customer also knows in advance that the owner of the business will be walking the job when the work is completed, people’s concerns about quality installation are eliminated. This is especially important in the commercial arena. It’s important that the job is done correctly the first time, and the only way a retailer can ensure that is the case is that he uses installers that he knows and installers that can demonstrate quality training with a training certificate.
TF: A major problem across the board in the construction field is recruiting, and it appears that that’s a special problem in floor covering installation. What is your take on recruiting high school students in the field? Is it best to be aimed at a high school student?
Winter: If one wants to make people aware of the trades, it needs to be done in middle school. Most parents are not aware of what is available in the trades, nor are most school counselors. We are starting to see a major shift where employers and technical schools are meeting with parents in middle school. The concern of most parents is that the educational process with their child results in a job, and a good job at that. A job is minimum wage; a good job is a great deal more than that. It is important that, when talking with parents, one can discuss what that career path is.
Locally here in Dalton, after recognizing that there was indeed a shortage in the trades, it was decided to launch an experimental program in the area’s middle schools to talk with the parents of eighth graders and expose them to the opportunities in technical training. Expectations for the program were modest; arrangements were made for 40 or 50 attendees. As it turned out, there was standing room only. It was announced that a special program focusing on the trades would be launched with about 200 kids expected to enter the program, in what was really a test case. As it turned out, there were more than 650 students that entered the program.
The key point is that no one knew what was out there. And that shortcoming falls on us as employers. We need to help the school systems understand what the career paths are and what the minimum requirements are, along with what the certification requirements are for a quality installer to gain employment anywhere in the country, and let them know what the career path is to help them get there.
TF: You had mentioned that guidance counselors as a rule are not active in the area of trades. Is it your experience that this is, for the most part, universal?
Winter: That is the case with most counselors. Their experience has been with four-year colleges. That is how they became involved in the educational system, and that presents several problems. First, they need to know what jobs are available in the community. In Georgia, on the Department of Education’s website, there is an option that lists the major employers and the major jobs available in each community in the state and the training that is available for each job. The need here is to get everybody connected, employers with guidance counselors, and guidance counselors need to be inviting employers to their schools. In some communities, counselors actually have the opportunity to work in the field with an employer to get a better understanding of what the jobs actually entail. The responsibility to educate is really on both sides.
TF: There are many good ideas out there. There is training expertise available through the CFI, and it appears that there are many people in the industry that really want to alleviate the industry-wide installation problem, but it seems like an extremely difficult situation to get your arms around.
Winter: Perhaps the industry, through CFI, needs to start to use as much as possible what is available out there as multipliers. There needs to be critical mass, enough people to fill a classroom for a program to be launched. The states of Georgia and Tennessee, and I am sure many other states, would welcome CFI saying, “We have the curriculum and a path to certification, and we can offer assurance that the appropriate qualities can be delivered through our training.” I am sure the staff of the CFI is not large enough to cover all 50 states, but all 50 states have adult education programs and technical education programs. In reality, it’s impossible to do all 50 states in a week. It might take five years, but one has to start somewhere. It’s all based on demonstrating that floor covering installation represents a career path that is beneficial. After all, how much flooring can be sold if no one is out there to install it? If efforts are not made to build the labor force in the industry, that can happen.