Tile & Stone:
I would like to suggest a surefire way for building wealth and assuring long term success in the flooring business: create and maintain a well trained, highly knowledgeable workforce. In all my years in the ceramic tile industry, the need for education and training has always been readily apparent. Sifting through the archives at Tile Council of North America, it is clear that this has been a persistent lament for years. Yet, in spite of our continued refusal to get serious about this issue, the market continues to grow, albeit, at lower margins. Why? People are drawn into sales and installation business due to the low cost of entry and the perception that little skills are required. And while the subject of education regularly comes up at industry events, the response is usually polite but ineffective. This consistent pattern needs to be broken by some as yet unidentified force.
Though most do not like to hear it, installer error is frequently the root of a failed job. Usually it is not so much the skill of the installer as it is his lack of knowledge. Remember, dissatisfaction spreads rapidly and any failure in the field is bad for the tile business. Not only does it discourage the consumer from ever selecting tile again, he or she is likely to tell neighbors, relatives, co-workers, and other potential customers about the experience. I have received my share of gratitude, but in all my years I recall only one instance when someone fell all over themselves thanking me for a job well done (to the point where I was embarrassed.) On the other hand, I can recall numerous times when-deservedly or undeservedly- we were chastised and threatened with legal remedies. Once, I was even told I would regret my birth. (You guessed it, it was an attorney).
The Tile Council of America (TCNA) and CTEF hear from more than 100 people each week looking for advice on how to install, correct, fix, pay for, or otherwise reach satisfaction with their tile installation. If that seems like a lot of calls and emails, remember that neither organization is readily identifiable to the average user. But it should not be the duty of the tile customer to learn about tile in great detail (although many do correctly or incorrectly via the Internet.) The responsibility of learning, of course, falls to the tile professional. When he is at the top of his game, everyone in the supply chain benefits-manufacturing reps, factory salespeople, architects, retailers, product specifiers, general contractors, tile installers, building inspectors and anyone else connected with the process.
If you have not tried one of the newer notch trowel patterns you're in for a surprise. All are designed to have ridges that collapse on contact with the tile.Contrary to popular opinion, manufacturers should not solely assume the burden of all training. They should be responsible for training related to their products (and, yes, there is room for improvement there). For example, when you are working with glass tile, highly modified thinsets, or membrane systems, there are very stringent application requirements. To often, this critical information seems to fall by the wayside when a big sale is on the horizon. As a result, a major project has installation issues because an architect is unfamiliar with the finer points of performance and installation. Or maybe it's a general contractor who thinks all tile and setting materials dry equally or an end user who does not understand the effects of premature traffic.
Distributors and others who sell product are in a very demanding position because they are seen, rightly or wrongly, as the ultimate source of expertise. Every business selling ceramic tile and related products should have at least one person on staff that can answer any question or at least point those making the inquiry in the proper direction. This is particularly important for those who are trying to generate new business. I remember when I first when into business alone, those who helped me where my preferred source for product even if they were a little higher in margin or limited in selection. I knew I could count on them and that created bonds not easily broken. If you have never been a contractor or installer, it is hard to appreciate how much they count on advice from people selling the product.
There is no question that those who have to wrestle with the challenge tile can bring are most frequently the installers. (They are, after all, the largest percentage of people employed in the business.) You can have the finest tile and best installation materials, but the tile will not hop out of the carton and install itself on the floor or wall without good knowledgeable people. This is the most difficult step because of the persistent shortage of skilled tile installers. Indeed, I have never known a good installer (we like the term "mechanic") that was looking for work.
If we are to ensure the long term vitality of the tile industry, no opportunity should be missed to recruit people sincerely interested in learning tile installation. You can build more plants and open more places to buy tile, but if the skilled labor is not there to handle it, it is all is for naught. We all know by now that it's tough to attract new workers into the field of tile installation. High school graduates are not easily drawn into the building trades in general so we need to do a better job of articulating the advantages of a career in ceramic tile.
They need to know that it is an industry with a long-term pattern of steady growth. Tile sales have increased nearly 10-fold over the last 25 years. Also, the building segment of the economy has held up very well and for good installers. There is always work, even when the economy slows. The advantages of a career in the field should be spelled out: Excellent pay, continued industry growth, better than average job site conditions, and respect for craftspeople-all make this a good career choice. But keep in mind that it is better to select a competent generalist than a poorly trained specialist.
The preferred method of training is typically "on the job." While this may work well for occupations involving sales and manufacturing, construction trades demand a structured training program. Information passed from person to person can become diluted or even distorted from the original content. Good mechanics or lead workers are not necessarily the best teachers, nor are they typically on the "cutting edge" of their profession. My preference is an apprenticeship program involving roughly 500 hours of classroom work and 8,000 hours of field experience with competency testing along the way. While that may not always be practical, that's what I think it takes to reach journeyman status. There can be no argument that the training offered by such a program would lead to a lifetime of job opportunities.
Everyone working in the industry should have a basic knowledge of "Industry Consensus Standards." This fancy term means that groups of experienced pros from all facets of the industry have established agreeable, meaningful standards for tile, installation products, and installation standards. The Tile Council of North America publishes the TCA handbook and is the Secretariat and publisher of the American National Standards for Ceramic Tile (ANSI A-137) Ceramic Tile Installation (ANSI A-108), and Ceramic Tile Setting Materials (ANSI A-118). There is a wealth of information in these publications. Buy them and read them (is this asking too much?). Then, keep them current and use them in the field. These are not instruction manuals; they are installation guidelines, a blueprint for successful installations. When consumers seek advice on finding a qualified installer, we tell them to ask those bidding for the job if they abide by these methods and standards. If the perspective installer has never heard of them, it may be best to move on. It's a good bet this person does not take his craft seriously.
Time is one thing that none of us has enough of. It is the scarcest of all resources. That you have invested the time to read this far suggests that you are concerned about this subject. I suggest that you join and support an appropriate industry trade group and attend meaningful seminars on a regular basis. When you have obtained a level of expertise, give something back to the industry. Share your experience and knowledge with those coming up in the field. Many of the most successful people in our industry have devoted countless hours of their own time to better the industry. It seems only fair that you give something back. I guarantee that time invested this way will come back to you many times over and continue to reward you through your chosen career.