Installation: How some retailers are facing the challenge

January 24, 2018

January 8/15, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 15

By Ken Ryan

 

To no one’s surprise, the No. 1 issue facing the floor covering industry today is installation—specifically how to replace an aging workforce while recruiting those new to the trade.

On the residential side, the International Certified Flooring Installers Association (CFI) has made recruiting, training and deploying new installers a major priority. In fact, in the past year alone CFI has graduated nearly a dozen classes of fresh recruits. Some of these student installers were novices when they enrolled in the classes; however, after five weeks of rigorous course work, they graduated and started working in the field.

However, CFI is but one entity. Flooring retailers who are concerned about the installation crisis need to take matters into their own hands, observers say. In many cases, they are doing something about it.

The following dealers were cited by the World Floor Covering Association’s (WFCA) Tom Jennings as exemplary examples of dealing with the installation crisis.

Gary Touchton, GM
Venetian Blind Carpet One, Houston
Located in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the Houston market (77005, West University Place), where the median price of a home is $1.32 million, Venetian naturally focuses on high-end goods such as woven wools and hand-tufted products. “As you can imagine,” Touchton said, “there is a shortage of people who can install [these kinds of products]. For that reason, we home grow our installers.”

To make matters more challenging, Touchton decided to upgrade all of the store’s installation equipment, including steaming technology to achieve a cleaner look appreciated by customers. This meant buying new tools and training the new installers on how to use the new machinery. He enlisted the help of Robert Varden, vice president of CFI, and WFCA’s Jennings to work with apprentices. Through this commitment to excellence, Venetian Blind has managed to grow its installation crews organically, primarily by word of mouth. “Many of the kids in the inner city of Houston … want an opportunity,” Touchton said. “We talked about going into the schools so we can get them when they are young and train them in-house. We’re constantly looking for talent.”

He looks for “clean-cut people” he views as good citizens who can pass a drug test and background check and who are coachable. Installer candidates who make the cut can do very well—some earn six-figure salaries. “I have a special spot in my heart for installers,” Touchton stated. “I know how important they are; they can make or break your business.”

Matt Andrews, Project Manager/VP
Allwein Carpet One, Annville, Pa.
Recruiting new installers to the flooring trade means overcoming several hurdles, and few understand this better than Matt Andrews. “No. 1, the money is not there right away,” he said. “It’s tough as an employer to pay a helper who is brand new and knows nothing. But on the flip side, if you don’t start them at a decent wage, why would they choose you when they can go load trucks for FedEx for $14 to $16 an hour to start?

No. 2, it’s hard work. Some of them have no interest in working hard. It’s very difficult to teach someone to be self-motivated. No. 3, installing floors is not glamorous. I feel like some of the pride has been taken out of the industry. A lot of these young guys don’t see being a master installer as something to strive for when, in fact, it should be something to take a great deal of pride in.”

To counter these obstacles, Andrews pays newcomers at least $20 an hour to start. He has instituted what he calls a “piece rate” pay plan that incentivizes those who are fully engaged in the work and get the jobs done correctly and efficiently. Essentially, the harder you work, the more you make. To get his installers up to speed, the newer workers are paired with those who are more experienced. Rookies also attend formal training sessions throughout the year. And that’s just the technical side of things.

Personalities are also important to a retailer’s business. “[Installers] need to be personable and know how to carry themselves in a customer’s home,” Andrews said. “There are flooring installers out there but are they the ones you want? We go through an interview, review previous jobs they’ve done and if everything checks out we will try them on a small, easily manageable—fixable, if necessary—project. Through that we have found some great subcontractors who we use to supplement our hourly crews. But we have also weeded out a lot of guys who I would never send to a customer’s house.”

Allwein’s doesn’t have any magical formula for attracting new installers; word of mouth is a time-tested method that still works best. Andrews also uses Indeed.com. Once hired, the goal is to take care of installers monetarily and emotionally. “We make them feel as though they are part of the team because they are,” he said. “Without them, we lose what makes us different.”

Jim Walters, President
Macco’s Flooring, Green Bay, Wis.
As a business, Macco’s approach is to upsell to higher-end goods and stay away from the proverbial race to the bottom. That ties in with installation, according to Walters. “With limited installation time, we need to install better quality goods but also work hard to give our customers the best value possible,” he explained. “Our unemployment rate is below the national average and when we run help-wanted advertising we find a lot of people who are not employable. So the old, traditional methods do not work. We’ve found our best success to be referrals from our existing workforce. However, it is a lot of trial and error.”

Macco’s installers are thoroughly trained, and the retailer takes advantage of installation training certification programs offered by manufacturers to ensure expertise and the most up-to-date information. The company even touts its installation services in the “About Us” section of its website.

Tim Jacobi, Owner
Jacobi Carpet One, Hastings, Neb.
Finding installers in central Nebraska, where the unemployment rate (2.8%) is among the lowest in the country, is akin to finding a needle in a cornfield. Tim Jacobi, who operates stores in the towns of Kearney and Hastings, can attest to this challenge. “There is nobody here to hire. We turn over every rock we can and look for people who want to work and want to learn.”

During times like these, it is important to have a reputation like Jacobi’s: He is known for a structured apprenticeship program that rewards good installers. “We have subs and employees—six in all to cover Kearney and Hastings. One of our journeymen, who is salaried and on staff, works as a trainer. He goes out in the field working with an apprentice or two and gets them up to a certain level. We work with the WFCA and CFI on ongoing training, and we are working with Central Community College.”

Central Community College, with branch campuses in the same locations as Jacobi Carpet One, does not offer flooring installation as part of its curriculum. However, Jacobi has forged a relationship with the dean of students, allowing him to visit the school and talk to students about the installation trade. “We just have to find the students,” he noted. “It’s important to find new blood because the good independent installers are busy all the time and are making good incomes.”

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