The industry has been dealing with the situation in the installation segment for decades and has been talking about a possible solution for the last three years. There have been several meetings on the subject over that time, as well as a study of the characteristics of the problem, which were presented at a recent meeting of the Floor Covering Leadership Council in Dalton. Following that meeting, we sat down with Mohawk Industries’ Tom Lape to get his take. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

TF: What is your take on the study conducted by the Floor Covering Leadership Council’s Executive Summit and of the installation situation in general?

Lape: I’ll start by saying that we do have an installation challenge. I don’t know if I would simplify it saying it’s just simply a shortage. Number one, I’d like to thank the efforts of the World Floor Covering Association. They stepped up and provided some leadership and unified the industry on this situation, and I commend them for making this effort. I thank Scott Humphrey and his team for doing this. 

I think if you look at the installation challenge, we all have to ask ourselves in the various industry segments as we’re competing with various products, “Does installation—since our product does obviously have to be installed, and the majority of it still is professionally installed—impact our business today in any negative way?”

Whether you can’t get it done, whether it’s too expensive, or whether it’s not done properly, our industry at the end of day has a vested interest in creating a satisfied consumer. It’s not just getting it in fast. An important point to start with, I think, as you heard at the Dalton meeting, is that the situation is unique by channel, it’s unique by geography and it’s somewhat unique by product type. So, I think the issue is a bit more complex, and I think we have to look at it with more granular detail.

TF: I’ve been in the industry for more than 40 years, and it was a problem when I arrived. Decades later, we’re still wrestling with it. Why?

Lape: What’s old is new again. You’re right—it always has been there. It would be hard for me to say that there’s probably no other industry where the installation is so important to the product where they were saying the same thing 30 years ago. I don’t think this is that unique to the flooring industry. I think the question is, what are we going to do about it? And I think the answer is a combination of things. You can’t just train your way out of it. You can’t just buy your way out of it.

I think you have to be fairly innovative on how you address the issue, and I think you first have to take a step back and see what has been done. We tend to look at it probably a bit more through the manufacturer’s viewpoint of what we can do to participate. That’s no different than the way the dealer community looks at it from their end. The biggest thing, I think, is that we have an obligation to make product—and I speak on behalf of Mohawk, and I’d be surprised if our competitors don’t do similarly—the question is: How do we make products that are essentially more productive to install? How do we make products that are possibly less stressful and physically demanding to install? How do we make products that essentially are easier to learn? 

If we can get a qualified installer sooner, we think that’s part of the solution as well. I laugh a bit at this next one, but this is reality. How do you make products more goof-proof? Mistakes are a part of any installed product. How do we essentially make a product—while it’s not necessarily self-correcting—but how do we make a product that is less mistake-prone than others? That sounds simple, but there’s a lot of things that I know we do on this side of our product delivery, and we ask ourselves these questions as we develop products at Mohawk. 

Look at click systems. We did the Mohawk Airo product, an easy-to-lay carpet product much easier than some of the existing tack installation products. If you look at a lot of the different installed products that we’ve done, we’ve really worked hard to do that. But once again, we are only part of that solution just as all other manufacturers are, and with that I would say we all talk about training. Training is still a big part and we’re doing a tremendous amount in the area of training. There are a number of answers in the industry’s various categories to craft easier to install, more mistake-proof products.

Look at the guy who’s out there installing one or two homes of carpet a day with a crew. Let me tell you, that this is a hard, hard job, and one of the things we look at is, how do we make these jobs a little bit less physically demanding? It’s no secret that, if we look, our installers are aging out. How can we extend the career of installers? Can they physically last? Do they physically want to continue doing installing?  For many, it’s just too hard once they reach their 50s and 60s to continue, and I think that’s a bit of a tragedy. How do we make it a bit less demanding on them to stay in these jobs? That’s a question we all have to ask.

TF: Starting early this year, I made a point of asking contractors and retailers if they thought they lost business as a result of the installation shortage. Most of all of them told me that they had a great year but said they would have had a better year had we not had a shortage of installers. 

Lape: I think you could probably find areas of the country and certain channels that probably had very tight labor markets, and the question would be, if one dealer may have lost some opportunity, was it picked up by somebody else? It’s not really my view that there’s a lot of opportunity lost out in the in the industry collectively. I’m not saying that there certainly aren’t some dealers that really wish they could have had more labor at times, and as a result, could have capitalized on some business. So, I think you can be right in both counts a bit. 

But if we look at where the industry is today, I think we have to ask ourselves, are we all essentially training our way to get better? Are we paying a fair wage? These are good questions for everybody to ask within the chain from where they were 10 years ago, five years ago, and today. Is that wage commensurate with the other trades that are out there? I think on the manufacturing side, I think it’s fair to ask, what are we doing to make those products essentially more amenable to be installed? All of those play a part into the solutions in this issue because, at the end of the day, I don’t think we’re going to blink our eyes and see the market go DIY. I think this is still going to be a professionally installed product and I think it’s up to us to make sure that we have the best mechanics in this segment of the trade. We don’t want to see the other segments lose, but everybody in this business, and I can speak on that on behalf of Mohawk Industries, we want to see the floor covering industry win. And when the floor covering industry wins, we tend to all win collectively. We think making sure you have qualified, motivated and essentially fairly-compensated and trained installers is a part of the solution collectively. 

TF: One of the bits of information from the Floor Covering Leadership Council study was that the industry will need somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 new installer recruits per year coming in to the installation segment over and above the normal influx of candidates and taking into consideration the normal attrition of veteran installers. That’s quite a number.

Lape: It is, but I think we have to put it in context. What is that as a percentage of the total number of installers? Let me just give you an example. Everybody tries to be more productive every year. Three thousand new installers means you will need 20% more installers. Well, that’s a tough one. It means you need 2% more installers in the business to come into the pool. I think we should be looking at how to get more installers in the pool. Because I think the age issue actually probably gives us more challenge than the number issue.

The next thing is, how do we make the installers we have more productive? One has to look at this on both sides. Let’s just say that’s 2% of the pool, and to say we need 2% productivity to essentially keep the same number installers and meet the demand—that’s not a big goal. I think each manufacturer is trying to get more productive with their business, so I think those are attainable. I think the issue of the age will be a bigger one, rather than getting just more numbers—how we get that next generation in is probably the bigger challenge that we have. I think that’s one of the reasons we do have to make sure this next generation does have a pathway to get properly trained. We have to make sure there’s honor and integrity in the trade. Don’t lose sight of that one because I think that’s a big one. You heard a lot at the meeting that we have to make this an honorable trade and a desirable trade for a lot of people to go into it, not just as a last-resort trade. I also think we have to look at the products themselves and make sure installers can install multiple products rather than just individual products. There used to be a lot more specialization, and I think now we’re seeing a bit more generalization with a lot of the installers out there, and it’s my hunch is that will probably continue in the future.

TF: Even before I went to this last installation meeting in Dalton, I noted that that there has not been any real discussion about a solution. You mentioned several. I’ve not heard that discussion take place. Why do you imagine that is? 

Lape: I think sometimes the reality is that we have a lot of vested interest inside that room. So I think that may have been one of the particular reasons, but I think if you look at everybody in that room—everybody from their vantage point—in fairness, some of the solutions may cross lines with other folks in the room. I’ll speak on behalf of what we’re doing. We’re making concerted efforts to try and help with the situation, and I think a lot of our competition is doing the same, no doubt. The question is, can we do more in certain areas and namely in training? We are trying to find areas that will deliver the right return on that investment. 

I think the one thing that probably does make sense is having everybody look at the issue a bit more holistically. The one thing that I probably bristle a bit about it that it’s not just a numbers and a training solution. It’s a much more complex solution. There is a very viable solution, but it’s not just simply let’s throw more money and more people at it. I think we have to think a little bit differently to get to the right answer long term.