The industry, for at least the 40 years that I have been a part of it, has had an installation problem, and most likely a good while before that. Although the complexion of the problem has changed over time, the problem has never been tackled on an industry-wide basis until last year. That is when the first Installation Summit sponsored by the Floor Covering Leadership Council was held last August in Dallas and then the follow-up summit, which was held this past August in Orlando, Fla., at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort.
On hand for this year’s summit were installers, contractors, distributors, a few retailers and some hard surface manufacturers. Industry leaders led the discussion, and the panel included John McGrath, director of INSTALL; Robert Varden, executive director of CFI; Harold Chapman, chairman emeritus of Starnet and former CEO of Bonitz Flooring; Dave Garden, Installation Services; Don Styka, Tarkett and Dan Welch of Welch Tile & Marble Co.
Serving as moderator of the summit was Tom Jennings, WFCA’s vice president of professional development, a man who has been involved in the installation process at the retail level since birth, and who played a valuable role at the summit keeping the conversation on track. We had an opportunity to talk with Jennings after the event wrapped. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. You can also watch this conversation in its entirety on Floortrendsmag.com. Just click on TalkFloor.
TF: What were the goals of this Installation Summit?
Jennings: When we held the first summit last year in Dallas, the goal was to learn what the problems were. Even though the problems are very similar among geographical areas of the country and among the various surfaces, these summits have brought together people from the marble and stone industry, LVT, vinyl and hardwood. Last year, we heard the problems; we understood the nature of the problems and spent some time working through them. What we’re hoping to accomplish in the second year is to find solutions. We all need to understand that we need to raise the level of awareness of the trade to younger people. Some of it is through money, but a great deal of it is through promotion. Currently, kids are being incentivized to join other trades. There is nothing currently out there encouraging them to look at the flooring industry.
TF: Why were there so few retailers at the summit?
Jennings: To be fair, this is probably not an event that is going to be largely driven by retailers. Taking place around the summit was a joint convention of the CFI, which is installation-driven and FCB2B, a technology driven organization, neither of which is likely to draw a great many retailers.
TF: How many calls would you say you get on average from retailers telling you they are in a bind and need installers?
Jennings: Seems like once a day. It is currently a very reactive industry. I have retailers coming up to me all the time at trade shows and other events asking me, “Where are the installers? Can you find me some installers? I can’t seem to get my floors installed.” I normally look them in the eye and ask them, what are you going to do about it? Usually the answer is nothing, steal somebody else’s or pay two bits more than what they’re getting elsewhere. That may be a reactive situation and get them through this week or this year, but the reality is that this industry, and the construction industry as a whole, is losing tradespeople faster than we’re gaining them and we have to look a little further out of the windshield and figure where we’re going to go.
TF: What are the potential solutions to this situation?
Jennings: At this level, what we are trying to do is give guidance, provide a recipe, and collateral materials that would permit retailers and contractors to go to a trade fair; materials to talk about the positive benefits of the flooring industry. The bigger picture deals with training. I am asked at least once a day if I know where installers are. I am also asked how I can bring these guys in-house. Legally it is not possible and it would be impractical to train subcontractors because there is no guarantee they will be with you after the training is complete. If we are going to bring new people in the industry, we are going to have to compete with other industries. We are not competing with other flooring stores, we’re competing with other trades. And it’s not just other construction trades, it’s automobile or HVAC repair people. And the question becomes, which of these trades are likely to offer better benefits? Which will offer a guaranteed pay? Which will permit them in 20 years to be a little better off? Right now quite frankly, the industry doesn’t have very much to offer.
TF: Based on that, would it be fair to say that, most likely, installers coming into the floor covering industry in the future will be employees as opposed to independent contractors?
Jennings: I asked that question during the summit, and I’m not here to take sides. I heard the comments throughout the audience at the summit today that we pay better than anyone else. Today, roughly four out of five installers in the industry work as subcontractors. Wouldn’t that dictate a situation where 80% of installers would be telling retailers what they charge? If the retail community is telling the 80% what they are paying, it’ not how the system was designed to work. Ninety day training and seven to eight percent commission does not get it any more. There are not a lot of people today that are willing to take that risk. At all levels of the floor covering industry, we are going to have to take a second look. The question is, if we want to be here in 10 years, what is the future going to look like?
TF: When you were a retailer, did you have problems with installation?
Jennings: Trust me, we had problems but they were internal. The difference between having subcontractors and employees is that in most cases—and you are going to pay either way—but most of the problem with employees are internal and your customer doesn’t perceive that anything actually happened because the retailer is making changes behind the scenes. If the retailer is working with subcontractors and the installer calls in sick or he gets out to the job and says I’m not laying this floor for this money, then the customer is always the one that gets caught in the crosshairs. The retailer will still have problems with employee installers, but the difference is you can control your own destiny. That’s the prime element. Look at other trades such as automobile dealerships. They are having trouble getting help, but they have a level playing field: it’s known what the guy across the street is paying and the benefits are basically the same. Treat them right and they will basically stay. They can afford to put money into training—and it’s not indentured servitude, no one has to stay, and there are not a great deal of contracts being offered, but at our core, I don’t think a great deal of us are job-jumpers. If we are treated well and if we’re paid competitively, the chances of workers staying is generally pretty good.
TF: We heard several presenters share good ideas on how they handle recruiting, training and the installation process. Are there just not enough retailers following this path?
Jennings: That’s true, and we all tend to focus on the negative too much. Listening to various comments around the room such as, “You install floor covering for 25 or 30 years and it takes a terrible toll on your body.” Maybe it does, depending how one takes care of themselves. If an installer works smarter, his longevity can be longer. We don’t talk very much about that in other trades. I personally don’t know many cabinet makers or finished carpenters that have all of their fingernails when they reach 50. At some point, something happens in all trades. The reality is we focus on the beautiful things other trades do; we focus on what they create and on something they will contribute to the home that will last for a great many years. We’re going to have to change that if we’re going to recruit new people into this industry. Obviously, money talks. But beyond that, they are going to have to feel that they have some sense of future; some sense that makes this a worthy trade that they are going to be able to build things with a certain artistic element that I think a lot of kids are looking for.