The Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF) is a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the crisis in the floor covering industry caused by the lack of qualified and trained installers. It does this through recruitment, scholarship and the placement of professional floor covering installers. We had an opportunity to sit down with Don Roberts, CEO of Central Alabama Flooring, and chairman of FCEF, and Jim Aaron, executive director of FCEF and former vice president of merchandising at CCA Global. The following are excerpts from that conversation. You can listen to this conversation in its entirety here.

TF: The FCEF is not a training entity. Talk about the function of the organization.

Aaron: That is correct. We are not a training entity. We have training partners: the CFI, the International Certified Flooring Installers; the NWFA, the National Wood Flooring Association; and CTEF, the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, which is an arm of the TCNA, the Tile Contractors of North America. These organizations are our three training entities as of today. They are the largest, best-known and well-respected training organizations. We have worked with them to identify their entry-level courses. We are planning to have 80% of funding go to scholarships for new recruits, because we need to bring new installers into the industry. Eventually, 20% will most likely will be aimed at people who are already in the industry. But again, we are not doing any training. Our scholarships are going to go to those training entities, and we are presently looking at a couple of different entities to assess whether they are right partners to receive FCEF scholarships.

TF: We talked earlier this year about the support you have gained from various industry players where your energy has been aimed, and the progress you made him. Which companies have committed financially to the foundation?

Aaron: Mohawk Industries, Shaw Industries and Engineered Floors have all committed very heavily financially. At this point, I am actually in the middle of scheduling some fundraising trips that Don, Deb DeGraff and I will be going on. 

This is an industry problem, and there has to be an industry solution. Everybody needs to play a part financially and otherwise. It cannot be left to the three large manufacturers—we need everybody's support and we have already had retailers committed to donating a hundred dollars per month per location to the foundation. It is easy to do on the website,

Roberts: This issue has been with us for years. We all saw it coming, but everybody thought somebody else was going to fix it. We just sat back. In the last two or three years, everybody is seeing that it is really everyone's problem. It does not matter if you are involved in the commercial market, multifamily or retail market; we are being limited to what we can sell based on what we can get professionally installed. And say what you will about do-it-yourself—we probably go back and fix 30% to 40% of the installations that the husbands try to do themselves to save some money.

What I see as a major problem for retailers goes something like this: if I put money in this effort and do not get one of those installers out of it, I am not going to get anything for my money. I have this conversation with retailers all the time. I would much rather be in Birmingham, Alabama, with another 30 new crews of installers and earn them to come work for my company rather than have to sit and hide in the bushes in the morning at my competition and follow installer’s vans to the job and hand them my business card. That is what is happening in the industry today. We need more installers out there so that we have a pool of people to go after to come work for us. It is our obligation as retailers to earn them, to get them to want to come work for us. That is my goal.

Aaron: We can only sell what we can install. If an installer cannot install it, a salesperson cannot sell it, and the retail store cannot sell it. That means there are lost commissions as well as lost profit. It goes all the way back to the distributor and to the manufacturer and even to the people that supply the manufacturer. I believe this industry can sell a lot more if we can install more.

Roberts: As we speak, we are about five weeks out on orders and that is not the scariest part, as far as I am concerned. What is terrible is that I have a sizable backlog of product that I am waiting for. I have a few million dollars in open orders that I am waiting for material to hit my warehouse so it can be installed. And when that stuff starts coming in, it could get a great deal worse. 

TalkFloor: With FCEF having so many conversations with people in the field, are you seeing that attitude changing? Are people saying they can help solve this?  

Roberts: I absolutely believe it is changing. However, it is not changing at a pace we would like it to. But when you have the likes of Shaw, Mohawk and Engineered stepping in, and stepping in early, it gained attention. When we started, we did not have this huge plan; we had a small business plan. We knew what we wanted to accomplish, but we also knew it was going to take money, and Engineered Floors, Shaw and Mohawk saw that and so did WFCA, and they said, yes, go for it.

Twenty-five years of a problem are not going to be solved in six months. We just hired Jim, and he came on board in April, and at present we have a lot of things going on. 

Attitudes have to change. Retailers’ attitudes have to change. Retailers need to get on board with this. And this is not something where we will see an immediate response to. But, if this in not done there will not be a response at all. One thing we have learned: consumers do not have a clue that there is a floor covering industry out there; they evidently think that when a house is built, the floor is just there. 

Aaron: A real quick story. We were in Bryant, Texas, visiting Robert Varden’s son, Jonathan, at the technical school there. He was teaching the flooring sector of a year-long construction class. I was speaking to 35 or 40 high school juniors and seniors about a career in flooring installation. I ask, “All of you are going into a trade, right? Nobody is going to a four-year university?” Everybody said yes. They were all going to a trade school. Then I ask, “How many of were going into flooring installation?”  Not one hand went up. I asked where they were going. They named every other part of the house except flooring: electrical, plumbing, HVAC. I asked, why not flooring? And I just got these blank stares. Then one kid asks, “Installing floors—is that a thing? You can get paid to do that?” We have done a terrible job of getting the word out. This is an uphill climb; HVAC, plumbing, electric and all of the trades need workers. And they have an advantage because at least there is awareness about these trades.  

Roberts: The floor covering trade, for the most part, has been a 1099 trade, a subcontractor trade, a good deal more than we have been an employee trade. And that is a huge factor. Most HVAC workers, plumbers and carpenters are employees; whether they get benefits or not, they probably have access to benefits. They have access to vacation time, retirement plans, and everything else. For the most part, the flooring industry is about 20% installer employees and 80% subcontractors. We are going to make the assumption that these kids today when they come out of school most assuredly do not want to, and for the most part are not in a position to, start their own business and become a subcontractor. The first question on their mind is, “How much time off do I get?” They want vacation time. They want health benefits. And we as an industry have not been there. We need to figure out how to deal with this.