Way back in 1978 as a 19-year-old kid in Lincoln, Neb., I put on a pair of knee pads and strapped on a tool pouch for the first time. I wasn’t seeking a career as a floorcovering installer; it was just a summer job. A lot has changed in 40 years. However, one thing has remained a constant: there was a shortage of qualified installers then, and an even more critical shortage today. The labor shortage has recently become a popular topic of discussion. Everyone seems to have an opinion on to how to solve what is widely recognized as the floorcovering industry’s largest challenge. 

However, our biggest challenge is not figuring out how to solve the labor shortage. Some very bright people throughout this industry have been telling us for years what it will take to attract, train and retain the next generation of installers. So, what is our biggest challenge?

The real challenge isn’t about how, it’s who.

Everyone, including manufacturers, distribution, trade organizations, contractors and retailers, must share their financial and other resources to establish a community approach in order to lift the declining installer ranks. Why should everyone participate?  Simply because we all benefit from a successful effort and all suffer from a continued failure to address a more permanent and lasting solution. 

No matter what segment of the flooring industry you might represent, your business is and will be impacted by the labor shortage. We’re in the same boat, and the only question is how many of us are willing to paddle? The risks to our businesses are real. None of us can grow or even sustain our businesses without a workforce to install our products. Missed deadlines and the inconvenience to our customers are just some of the risks.

With the high demand for skilled labor, the commercial flooring contractor may be experiencing the greatest impact from a shrinking workforce through escalating labor rates. Often large commercial work is bid as much as a year prior to the actual installation date. In just the last year in both the states of Indiana and Kentucky, the typical subcontractor rate for sheet vinyl installation, has increased by 25 percent. That rate of increase has the potential to wipe out the profit margin generated on the labor side of the ledger and to reduce the overall profit margin to half of expected earnings. There are other financial risks as well.

Employment of hourly installers can limit the impact of raising subcontractor labor rates but exposes contractors and retailers to a greater risk of facing overtime costs. Don’t ignore the financial risk to the entire industry from failed installations. Very few subcontractors can pay the price tag for replacing products, leaving the rest of us to pay the bill. But the damage to the reputation of the industry and our individual companies is the largest risk of all. 

I’m not suggesting that there is no sense of cooperation in our industry on this issue, but it’s a small percentage that really participate. We seem trapped in the mentality that it’s better to foot the bill for failed installations than to invest in installation training. It has often been practiced by manufacturers to build the cost of claims for manufacturing flaws and installation failures into the price of their products. There are manufacturers that provide training and do contribute funding to trade organizations like the International Certified Flooring Installers Association (CFI), and the rest of the industry needs to share that responsibility.

Trade organizations like CFI, the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), Natural Fiber Installation Certification (NFIC) and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), and others, are all capable of providing the training, but are limited by their financial resources. We’re all busy participating in the running of our businesses. Part of the reason that the best intended of individuals have only achieved limited success is because we’re trying to solve the problem with leftover time or with part-time efforts.

Here in Kentucky, a local ceramics distributor and its manufacturers are looking to hire a full-time director of education. This person’s role will not be to just teach installation classes, but to work with local high schools to raise awareness with educators and students of the opportunities in the ceramic industry. CDI Flooring is committed to sharing the financial burden with other contractors. This same concept can easily be expanded to include other flooring product categories. We as an industry must find a way to reach out to these students that are not going to college or later find college is not a good fit. 

I started in this industry just looking for summer employment but was lucky and found a career. The prospects for a young man or woman are even greater today. However, at a time when it seems every industry is searching for manpower, we need to stop merely giving lip service to the labor crisis. We need to commit our joint resources to marketing this industry as a viable option and to contribute and fund any initiative that will education the next generation of installers. Forty years of talk is enough.