Lessons Learned. Your willingness to invest the time and money needed to take part in educational seminars can mean the difference between success and failure in the flooring business. Here, the author leads an Installation Showcase during Surfaces.

Training Tribulations [Noun] 1. Great affliction, trial, or distress; suffering. 2. An experience that tests one’s endurance, patience, or faith.  What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of training tribulations? After 10 years of fulltime teaching, I can most certainly assure you it is very real. I can also assure you the triumphs of successful efforts far outweigh any of the negatives. Education is something one must do to achieve personal satisfaction and fulfillment. There is no amount of money commensurate to the effort put forth by those developing and presenting a high quality instruction to students.  That means the program is devoid of any product other than knowledge. Those who avail themselves of such opportunities have bestowed upon themselves a gift they can use throughout their career.  This is why I teach.

My career specialty has been ceramic tile. I entered a formal union-based training program many years ago in the South. When I started my own company some years later, those programs were not available in my area, so we developed our own company-based program. Once we established an effective training program where skills and excellence were rewarded with appropriate compensation, we experienced very little turnover. Management studies have shown that the greater the investment in educational opportunities for employees, the higher the retention rate. The old adage about not teaching them too much or they will be your competition may have some merit but it is certainly not the norm.

People skilled at running a business are as rare as expert craftsman. To find both talents in one individual is very rare. In fact, I know many more great craftsmen than great business managers. Some of the best installers will inevitably look for greener grass on the other side of the fence. A few I know have successfully started their own business but too many others have ended up bankrupt, divorced-or both. The reason had nothing to do with their skills in flooring; they simply could not acquiesce to the demands of business.

This also leads to an assumption that is one of the tribulations I have come to associate with training. I have been asked (or, worse, I’ve heard people whisper): “If your tile business was so good, why are you training others?” The reality is, after many years of running a successful contracting business I was approached with a (generous) offer to sell my business. The deal would secure my retirement. The business man inside me did not have to think too long about accepting the offer. A short time later, I was recruited by Tile Council of America for what they described as a “retirement job.”  I was offered the opportunity to run the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation. Let me assure you, running an educational foundation is not a retirement job!

NFTasked me to share my view on the more effective methods of increasing knowledge in our trade. Ceramic tile and floor covering in general is not the same skill based trade it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Methods of construction have changed dramatically. Materials typically used in the building process are now highly engineered as are the structures where they are used. Worker safety and proper safety equipment is now mandated by federal law. The tried and true products we all know and love have been reformulated and now have different performance properties. This all requires a knowledge base far beyond the basic math we used to learn during our apprenticeship. Maybe you are one of the installation veterans who are fond of saying “I have been doing it this way for 30 years and never had a problem.” That may be so, but your day is coming. With a few notable exceptions, such as wood comes from trees, everything else has changed. To remain competitive and problem free, the old dog must learn new tricks. The rookie, meanwhile, had better get proper guidance if he is to embark on the proper course of success.

In my opinion, the greatest cost-benefit learning experience today can be found at a trade show. If you can make it to Surfaces or Coverings your investment will be returned many times over. Though the shows run for three or four days I have never been able to complete a total walk through of the exhibits. For those of you who have never attended a trade show-which statistics would indicate is about 75% of you-you have no idea what an opportunity you are passing up. You can not possibly appreciate the volume of products and labor saving equipment available to you. Most manufacturers also send their top tier people to field questions and get feedback from those in the trenches every day. Education seminars abound at these events in both proprietary and non-proprietary formats. After the show, if a competitor asks about the show, I will tell him attending was no big deal. Better to let them remain in the dark on how we are setting the standard with cutting edge products and services that he knows nothing about. I can positively assure you, I would not be writing this today if I hadn’t taken advantage of the trade show opportunities. If you can not make a national show, attend a regional show but, frankly, they usually pale in comparison.

Want another great way to get more out of your craft or business? Join a trade organization and become an active member. If you do not participate you still get a nice plaque and a membership listing but not much else for the money. I vividly recall the first organization I joined, National Tile Contractors Association. Those annual dues took a bite out of me at the time, about a week’s worth of wages.

In retrospect, it was one of the best things I ever did. Every business encounters technical issues and growing pains. But no matter what the problem, there is a high probability that others have experienced the same thing. They likely have the solution or know where to find it. Becoming an active member of an organization allows for a free exchange of ideas.  The opportunity to network with others who share your interest, passion and headaches can only bring good things to you.

In today’s market, price may still be king. But there is also far more scrutiny for contractors and their work these days. There is bound to be some shake-out among the discounters and the cream will rise to the top. Whether your business is struggling or going great guns, I urge you to take the time and make the effort to avail yourself of some of the great educational and network opportunities out there. Those who have the knowledge and the skill to work quickly and effectively and those who can handle the latest equipment and technology will be set for the next building renaissance. We hope to see you there.