Please let me start with full disclosure: I do have an ax to grind and I do have a dog in this fight. Then again I think everyone from fiber and backing producers, to salespeople, to the retailers, trade associations and the installers on the floor today should all be aware an installer crisis could easily be upon us, as we all depend on installers.

We are chasing a 25-year dream of doing more and better, and we are proceeding toward an early 2015 launch of a new and completely different approach to flooring installer training that will increase the install capacity in our industry. The new school will be called Flooring Academy of Specialty Training Career Institute. We call it FAST for short.

FAST will operate as a 501-3C not-for-profit corporation and will work out of a permanent 15,000-sq.-ft. space in Dalton. Classes will be a brief 26 days, held monthly and class size will be about 30 students working and learning in fullscale room-size mock ups. The school’s emphasis will be recruiting and training flooring installation apprentices and then offering them guaranteed paid placement with a real installer as a mentor for the maturing part of their training.

The other emphasis that will set FAST students apart is the business skills training they will get. Our emphasis is to create the world’s greatest most employable helper—nothing less. We do want that great helper to have the hand skills to do good work, the communication skills to represent us well, the product knowledge to make great decisions, and the business skills to soon create their own crew and own their own business.

If the straight talk that follows makes sense to you, please join me in making a difference, and we can change this industry for the better.

The time to start diggin the well is way before you are thirsty. Let me give you a bit of perspective:

  • No one buys a roll of carpet or box of hardwood to place it in the living room and show their neighbors what good taste they have. Flooring is only valuable as an installed product, to make a space more livable or increase its value.
  • Since we are dependent on installed flooring as the goose that lays the golden eggs, looking after installation, installers and the services side of our business is in our own best interest.
  • Today’s consumer is demanding and they want it now. Texting, cell phones, next day delivery, this generation of consumer was raised on an immediate gratification. Not to mention a use it, abuse it, don’t like it, bring it back, marketing plan.
  • A really big flat panel TV costs about the same as the average U.S. flooring purchase. In most houses the TV would be a hands down winner if it was a family vote between new flooring and endless entertainment.

The TV can be purchased anywhere, with extended credit terms and on our wall entertaining us before sundown the same day.

The flooring may take a week or more to be installed and, if installers get scarce and delivery times get longer, we start losing even more often to the thousand other things consumers can—and will—spend their money on.

  • The best buying group, the prettiest showroom, greatest signage, smartest salespeople and greatest marketing plan all falls apart if you can’t get it installed—and properly.

Flooring is only valuable as an installed product.

  • It’s only a guess but probably pretty accurate: 10,000 installers will “age out,” retire or otherwise leave our trade this year and every year for the foreseeable future. That is a considerable quality, knowledge, skills drain and a tremendous installation capacity drain.
  • If a crew installs 100 yards a day, that’s 500 yards a week and 25,000 yards a year, adding or losing just one carpet crew can be a $500,000 per year plus or minus swing in your gross business capacity.
  • Do the math. Adding one extra crew is pretty good insurance for your service reputation.
  • Let’s don’t lie to ourselves. Even our best installers are seldom great and inspiring teachers, and most are even worse as recruiters for our industry. Most pass on the bad habits and questionable skills as much as they pass on the good.
  • We need to be recruiting ex military personnel who need jobs, youth at risk, transitioning career individuals—and we need more women in the trade.

Most of all we need the age group known as the millennials, and getting them will be tough. They have different values than the aging out baby boomers do. The good news is they suffer from a high unemployment rate, low wages and they are interested in being entrepreneurs, making good money and owning their own business.

If we show them a career path toward better earnings and to owning an installation business, we have a shot with them.

  • Hiring any position is tough, even experienced managers and leaders miss on successful new hires about as often we get a hit. When we have to hire someone in a hurry our outcome is even worse and, let’s face it, helpers never give notice.
  • I never met an installer that became one on purpose, including me.
  • Independent subcontractor installation is here to stay and we need to find a way to get new installation crews and stay out of trouble with the IRS rules.
  • The IRS isn’t going to go away and its unproductive rules on who is and isn’t an employee are probably only going to get tougher. Those rules restrict our ability to improve installation. The one way around these rules would be to set up an industry supported school and let the school do the recruiting, training and placement. That gets us what we need and keeps us 100% clear of the tax man.
  • When installers get sparse, we all reach for the less qualified to fill the gap. On the other end, we raise rates just to steal the good—and the bad—guys.

Neither of those is a good answer. I am all for better rates, but better pay should be for better work and better organization.

  • Certification is a great thing, but certification of the existing installer pool doesn’t add any extra installers. It only polishes the 5% of the guys who are conscientious enough to care and does nothing for the other 95% (full disclosure, I made those percentages up, but the number doesn’t matter, as the result wouldn’t change if it was 50/50).
  • Think about the fundamental truth of this: If you want apples, you have to plant apple trees. If you want a great steak you have to tend the cows, and if you want water, then you have to dig the well.
  •  If we want more and better installers, we don’t get there by certifying existing installers alone, we get new installers by planting great helpers with mentors who want them to succeed. The only way most existing installers will want the new kid to succeed is if they are great helpers and make the mentor more money. Great apprentices can become great installers.
  • The career track that will work to improve quality and increase our installer pool is pretty simple but never happens without dedicated, organized effort: Recruiting, training, placement—lather, rinse and repeat.

We need a school that can crank out a solid class every month and when that works we need another school in a different location, doing the same thing.

  • Many of us can train an installer but again let’s not lie to ourselves, most won’t. Most retailers are too busy trying to make an honest living to dedicate the time, skills and money it takes to really grow their installer base. So we recruit and steal from the guys who are already working for our competition.

The other reality is we all know any trainee can take our training and walk away tomorrow. But that is true with your salespeople, your estimator, accountant, managers and everyone—God Bless America; we have that freedom.

Apprentice training needs the help of the mills, the co-ops/buying groups, associations and the retailers. We will all work together or we will all suffer separately.

The big box retailers are taking a huge market share in our industry and it’s time for them to step up too. But I don’t run the mills and I have no authority over the co-ops so the hard, sad truth is that the grass roots will have to lead: If it is to be, it’s up to me.

Right now, we have an absolute alphabet soup of industry organizations that all are supposed to be looking after our interest. Nothing we do today has greater potential to damage our industry than a bad installer, or the coming installer shortage. If all this makes sense tell your industry association, your co-op, your major vendors, your buying group that now is the time and today is the day we are going to make a difference.

You pay your dues. Call the president of your trade association; co-op; buying group; workroom; call the presidents at your biggest suppliers. You will either be impressed with their willingness to listen or unimpressed by how much they don’t care about the battles you fight every day to support them.

Let them know that installation is a ticking time bomb that will impact you and, ultimately, them. Tell them it will take a new plan that includes recruiting and apprentice training and placement and that you think that is the way to go. Sometimes the people have to lead and the leaders have to listen and today is the day.

My contact info is listed with this article, visit the website, floorjobsfast.org, and let us know what we can do to help you. If you want more details about what we are doing to improve quality, increase capacity, and help retailers with their installation challenges let me know. I’m all about lighting candles, rather than cursing the darkness.


Don Barrett is the managing director of the Flooring Academy of Specialty Training (FAST) Career Instiute in Dalton. He is a 40-year industry veteran, having started as an installer appretentice in his early teens. By 1980 Barrett was the national installation training manager for Mannington Carpet, and has also held senior posts for Amoco, Home Depot, CCA Global and Keller Interiors. He plans to have the FAST Career Insitute up and running in early 2015 as a 30-day, hands-on recruiting, training and placing school located in Dalton.

For more, contact him at donbarrett@floorjobsfast.org or (864) 498-4260.