The World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) recently announced an initiative to deal with and reduce the industry-wide installer shortage. The plan includes a major investment from the WFCA, invitations for other industry entities to get involved, a network of recruiting and training as well as dramatic changes in the very framework of the association. We had an opportunity to sit down with Scott Humphrey, CEO of the WFCA, to get an inside look at this initiative. The following are excerpts from that conversation, which you can watch in the Videos section of our website.
TF: The industry has been wrestling with the installer shortage for years. Earlier, the WFCA announced the launching of an initiative entitled “We are Part of the Solution.” To launch this initiative, the WFCA took a dramatic step demonstrating its degree of seriousness for this effort. This step came in the form of a dollar-and-cents commitment to the effort committing $1 million in seed money, demonstrating that it indeed is part of the solution. Talk about this commitment and how it came to pass.
Humphrey: In 2013 and early 2014, we started meeting with Robert Varden and the Walkers about acquiring key assets of CFI. At that point, we were aware that the installation issue had the potential to become a crisis. In August of 2015, we acquired key assets of CFI. That’s when we first displayed our desire to do something that would have an impact, working with other entities in the flooring industry and in the process form a unifying voice. It’s difficult to gather support when you’re not investing in the solution up front. A nonprofit committing $1 million when it doesn’t have a renewable stream of revenue coming in certainly sends a message which is exactly the message we wanted to send. We’re serious about fixing this problem and it will take the entire industry to do it.
TF: One of the most interesting parts of the WFCA’s announcement was the formation of the Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF), an entity dedicated to solving the industry’s installation problem. Expand on the FCEF and its functions.
Humphrey: The FCEF will be a 501c3. We’re in the process of getting it created right now and it will be responsible initially for three things. First, for recruiting new bodies into the industry. Secondly, for providing scholarships to those bodies so they can have an education that’s not costly to them - and hopefully no cost to them. Third, the FCEF will be responsible for placing these new installers. Also, there will be a follow-up to that because no one wants to continue to support something if it’s not a success. We’ll be tracking the length of time people stay in the industry once they’ve been educated. The foundation will also train experienced installers.
TF: Do you have in mind a goal as to how many installer candidates will need to come into the industry every year?
Humphrey: According to research from Blackstone Research, conducted for the Floor Covering Leadership Council, the industry will be short 3,000 to 6,000 installers each year for the next 10 years and that doesn’t even count the shortages that already exist. That’s not looking at where we are today; it’s looking at where are we going to be, and that number varies based on whether we have helpers that can migrate up to installers or whether we find installers simply migrating out with no replacements. If that’s the case, that number can increase to 10,000 or 12,000 per year. That’s a pretty healthy goal. We know in the first half of this year, we will be setting up the foundation, getting everything in place, placing the right people on the board, getting it established, and looking at funding, not only with seed money up front but long-term funding. By year three, we are aiming at recruiting, training and placing some 6,000 installers in the field.
TF: Talk about the recruitment and scholarships efforts going forward.
Humphrey: The big task before scholarships is finding the people. Kaye Whitener, who used to serve as WFCA national manager of member relations, has now moved over to the FCEF. Her job will be recruiting. She’ll be out there promoting and educating individuals as to what is possible in this industry and making candidates aware of the career path installation offers.
TF: It sounds as though a network of some type will need to be set up to generate the number of candidates we’re talking about, and that means, I suspect, the launching of an awareness program of some type.
Humphrey: Every group in the construction field is experiencing the same pain. The question is, what do we do to differentiate flooring? Our biggest challenge is we have never been really good at telling our story. Truck drivers have gotten pretty good at telling their story. They’re advertising, they’re talking about income potential and making a career of driving. We don’t tell that story. At least we don’t as an industry, so again, a big part of the focus of the FCEF is to speak with one voice saying there are very good reasons for being a professional flooring installer, really an artist and a craftsman. We need to tell the story, enumerate the reasons why flooring installation is a viable career and start communicating the story early in high school so we’re not waiting for people to graduate and decide if they go college or go to a trade school and work with their hands.
We’re looking to tell students early on what’s possible. We have dreams of creating a summer work program where kids in their sophomore and junior years can begin to work with professional dealers around the country and get a taste of the trade so they can start making career decisions well before their freshman year with the help of a guidance counselor.
We also must look to groups that we are currently not tapping today including nonviolent prison groups, native American tribes — there are many groups out there that we can reach out to that are not being touched today, and some of them have already reached out to us. They exist and invite us in. In our press release announcing this initiative, we showed some images of mobile classrooms, which is an idea that will permit us to go where students are. They will be responsible for stocking the school, putting students in the seats, and we will responsible for making sure the training takes place and when it’s done, we drive to the next location.
TF: Intertwined with this initiative was an announcement changing the requirements for membership into the WFCA. Tell us about that.
Humphrey: WFCA membership is basically for primary members, which is to say our members who are professional flooring dealers, both residential and commercial, members who are inspectors, cleaners — basically anyone who really relies on the professional flooring dealer for their success. Manufacturers and distributors are associate members. Their membership will still have an investment associated with it. But for primary members, it will be free. And the reason for that is we want to take any barrier away for coming together to fight this problem. We seek to unite industry voices and really make a difference. That means in our local communities, we come together and have events where we can make people aware of this trade and educate them as well. It also means when we go to Washington D.C. in our lobbying efforts, we will have a united voice that speaks much louder.
The first question we get when we visit Washington is, “How many people do you represent?” They literally hear you differently based on the size of your voice. This move will give us the ability to unite professional flooring dealers under one voice so when we’re in Washington we will be able to gain attention for the issues impacting us. Working with a larger group, a group that is willing to do what needs to be done to solve this problem, is a much easier and effective way to attack this situation.
TF: The WFCA’s $1 million contribution was a way to really stir the pot, to get this thing going. How has this move worked in terms of gaining support from other entities in the industry?
Humphrey: We have had meetings the first week of December 2019 with Shaw, Mohawk, and Engineered Floors, all of which have committed to financially supporting this initiative. And shame on the WFCA as much as anybody for not doing this earlier. This problem has been around, and nobody stood up to fix it. We’ve dared to go around and ask for money to fix it. We never did offer to put up our own money, however. This changes the way everybody perceives the importance of the issue and how dedicated and committed we are to solving it. When you note that we are a nonprofit, we don’t have a revenue stream, we don’t have money coming in that can supplement what’s going out, but we are so committed to solving this issue and we’re committing some of the money, the returns of which we rely on to keep us afloat, to solve this problem.