The Time Has Come to Address Installer Education and Compensation
I am sick and tired of being sick and tired about two things: installers screaming for more money, and retailers saying there is an installation crisis. However, both camps are right in their assertions. As I see it, our industry's mission is to work together, to eliminate the injustices each of them heaps on the other, by putting our energy and effort into solving our two biggest problems -- installer education and proper compensation.
To begin with, retailers must be able to demand top-quality work from their installers. There are many important reasons for this, not least of which is to produce satisfied customers who refer the store to friends, relatives, neighbors, business associates, and others. Good referrals are the least expensive and most effective form of advertising.
Installers have a responsibility to keep up-to-date so that they are familiar with the best and most current installation techniques and products. That requires continuing education.
I like to relate floor covering education to VCRs. Last year's models are already obsolete, much the same as last year's installation techniques. Products are constantly changing, both the goods being installed and the materials used to install them.
Let's address installer compensation. I agree that most if not all quality installers are underpaid for the amount of work required of them. How underpaid? That question has driven this debate for as long as I can remember.
Determining adequate compensation -- which is difficult at best -- can't be debated fairly in a national forum. That's because the costs of living, costs of doing business and sometimes the costs of products vary from one region of the country to another.
However, I propose a simple solution: installation rates based on a percentage of the retail price of the goods being installed. This would guarantee that installers receive proper compensation for floor coverings, including upgrades. Under this scenario, the installer's pay scale would reflect the economics of the area in which he works.
For example, vehicle insurance is much more costly in New York than it is in West Virginia. If it costs more to do business in a certain area, compensation should be proportionately greater than in an area where costs are lower.
Some installers complain about the difference between what retailers charge and what their installers are paid. They overlook the fact that retailers are entitled to a profit on their costs, and installation is a cost factor on each job. Depending on how a retailer does his accounting, this cost has to include warehousing and its associated expenses, potential liability for replacements and general profit, among many other things.
Retailers, on the other hand, must recognize that floor coverings do not go down on the floor for free. Installers have additional costs in excess of straight labor expenses. Those who are independents or subcontractors have to provide all of the tools and sundries required for proper installations. They also have to pay taxes, Social Security, Worker's Compensation insurance, vehicle payments, operating expenses, insurance, and more. And because most retailers demand it, they also have to carry liability insurance.
Countless installers around the country have old me, "I know how to do it right. I just don't get paid enough to do it." I believe that they are telling the truth.
Look around your store, Mr. Retailer. Do you have installers who you send out on only the most basic jobs, and then use special, hand-picked installers for more difficult installations? Do you pay these special installers for their knowledge? Why would an installer with special installation skills be willing to install upgrade carpets or inlaid vinyls for the same pay as a soft vinyl or non-descript carpet? And should the installer who does a job in a vacant apartment be paid the same as the one who performs an installation in an occupied home?
Before you answer, bear in mind that some retailers don't believe that there is a difference between jobs. They say, "Our rate is X dollars per yard, regardless." They might offer some additional pennies for installation of Berbers or inlaid vinyls, or for moving furniture, but that's about it. In their minds, carpet is carpet and vinyl is vinyl. Therefore, they pay the same rate for all.
If we follow that line of thinking to it's logical conclusion, I should be able to insure my brand new Corvette (if I had one) for the same price as my wife's Ford Focus. A car is a car, right? But in the real world, those insurance rates will be profoundly different because the liability associated with each vehicle is different.
An installer cannot possibly install an upgrade product for the same price as base grade. Why? For one reason, the liability is greater for an upgrade. If something should go wrong, it will cost the installer more to replace the product. For this reason alone, a pay scale based upon a percentage of the retail costs of the goods is the only equitable way to compensate installers.
Now for the easy part -- installer education. I say it's easy because there are more opportunities for installers to increase their knowledge and skills than ever before in the history of the industry. It behooves installers to take advantage of the numerous seminars and clinics offered by manufacturers, associations and distributors. Most classes are offered at very reasonable prices, and many are free. Distributors also host clinics on new tools, products and installation techniques. The International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI) has more than 30 local chapters that conduct skills-building meetings on a regular basis.
The educational incentive for installers whose pay is based on a percentage of the retail sales price of the goods is obvious. To earn more, you must learn more. An important ingredient is learning to properly install all types of products, including "exotic" higher-end floor coverings. An educated installer will produce a better installation and be paid a premium for his skills. That's a win-win situation.
Will these suggestions solve all of the installation-related problems? Probably not, but they could go a long way toward improving the two of the most chronic ones -- educating installers and properly compensating them. After all, these professionals constitute the backbone of any retail floor covering operation.