We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Nyle Wadford, president of Youngsville, N.C.-based Neuse Tile Service, a ceramic contracting organization that has been installing tile for more than 50 years. The following are some excerpts of that conversation.

TF: We all hear so much about the installation problem. Capsulize from your point of view the problem.

Wadford: There is certainly a desire to have high-end products at low-end prices and generally that doesn’t mesh very well. What we are seeing in our industry now is probably a lack of education. The products are out there, the knowledge is out there, the technology is out there to install great products, but the education side is lacking. Organizations like the National Tile Contractors Association and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation are working hard to close that gap. But it’s been tough and there is certainly a shortage of qualified labor.

TF: It seems to me that there is plenty of education if people would just take advantage of it. Are installers shying away from getting education?

Wadford: There is a lot of free education available. There’s a great deal of education that cost a little bit of money to take advantage of, but one of the problems right now is that everybody is too busy. They can’t take time out of their business. When things are slow, they can’t take time because they’re looking for work. When they are busy, there is no time to spare for education, so it’s a bit of a catch 22, but it’s an investment and that’s the way you have a look at it. Education is an investment in what you’re able to do, what you’re able to learn and what you’re able to impart for your employees and for your company in general. 

TF: I’ve had retailers and contractors tell me that they are sending installers out on jobs they wouldn’t even think about sending them out on five or 10 years ago. Is that common? 

Wadford: It’s a problem. You also have situations on the retail and contractor side where we are seeing installers know much more than the people that send them out on jobs. So, the education on both ends needs to be a great deal better. And, there are also issues where the people that are actually doing the installations are involved in cross-education where they’re installing hardwood today, carpet tomorrow and tile the next day. Personally, I don’t think tile is like any of the other floor covering products; it’s a much more specialized and difficult product to install.

TF: It would seem that having installers being able to install three or four different types of floor covering would certainly make them more valuable. It makes the installer and the retailer or contractor more sellable as well.

Wadford: It certainly makes them more sellable, but it also takes a significant amount of training. Most industries are much more technologically advanced now with products that require new installation techniques. There are too many advanced systems that require a continuing education and if installers are spread that thin, they are unable to have the time to take advantage of the education that is available. 

TF: What can change this? 

Wadford: I would say our industry as a whole has not done a great job in making the industry aware of what education is available. It’s there and you just have to look for it. We’re growing, we’re making great strides in making that education available. There needs to be demand coming from the contracting side. The general contractors need to demand specialized installation practices because of the specialized products that are now on the market. To perform these specialized installations and do them correctly is going to take the education, so you can’t have the low price mentality. Specialized products mean you must be willing to hire quality installers and have pricing that is going to take make that happen. 

TF: Isn’t that what basically got us here in the first place? Hasn’t this always been a money problem? When a contractor knocks on the door of a general contractor, it would be good to be able to say all of my installers are certified; wouldn’t that endear the tile contractor to the general contractor?   

Wadford: The certification process is a validation of an installer’s skills, so the general contractor basically knows what they’re getting when the installation contractor shows up on the job. In programs like the National Tile Contractors Association’s Five Star Contractor program, continuing education is a prerequisite to maintain that five star status. So, there are vehicles in place to not only provide the installation education, but to ensure that the status is maintained by the company and their status in the industry. 

TF: From a contractor’s viewpoint, talk about a contractor’s relationship with installers  employee installers or subcontractor installers, or some combination thereof. Is the employee relationship a better environment for education to occur? 

Wadford: Most definitely. I think by law you can’t require subcontractors to participate in training. You can strongly suggest that, of course. But with employees, it becomes much more doable. You can require attendance to training sessions and even have in-house training sessions. I have friends in the market that are very big on having employee installers and some that are very much in favor of subcontractors. Our company has a mix of both. We use subcontractors to supplement our in-house crews. I think to a large measure that’s what a lot of contractors in the country are currently doing. But there are a lot of independent contractors in the business that want to be able to market their skills to the highest bidder.

TF:  We have seen in many segments of this industry consolidation. Distributors are consolidating as are manufacturers and retailers. Do you see that happening in the contracting segment? 

Wadford: I don’t see it happening as rapidly as it’s happening in the other sectors. I know that it is ripe for that to happen with the economy being as good as it is, but I’m not sure that model fits with many contractors. It all really depends on what niches the company is operating in. And there are many different niches available in the tile industry that contractors can operate in without trying to cover the whole spectrum.