When the housing slump occurred, many qualified laborers, installers and craftsman were forced to permanently leave the housing sector. And, as the housing sector now begins to bounce back, there is not enough labor to fill the demand.
“It’s a timing issue,” said Rajesh Shah, co-president, MS International (MSI). “It’s hard to transform an economy that quickly. People who lost their jobs or had their own installation companies may have moved on to something else and they’re not coming back.”
Bart Bettiga, executive director, National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), added that the workforce is aging and has not done a good job of recruiting young people into the trade. “Other than the trade unions, the way people have been trained and brought in to our industry in the past was mainly through family and friend relationships, and on-the-job training,” he said. “The potential growth for the industry has exceeded this type of training, and we have to adjust quickly or we will lose a real opportunity.”
Another impediment to attracting people into the trade, Bettiga said, is that installation is not valued highly enough, and the compensation for qualified tile installers and business owners has not kept up with other trades. “When we begin to realize how integral installation is to our trade and to compensate the highly skilled, I think we will begin to make progress.”
According to Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing, Crossville Inc., this problem also affects the product itself. “Not only does it slow down the work and cause project fails but inherently people are going to blame the tile and not the installer. If a tile cracks it must be the because of the tile right? Not because it wasn’t installed correctly,” Waldrep said.
Manufacturers also said that immigration reform may have a significant impact on this growing problem. “It’s a great entry point as an immigrant to get a leg up here in the United States. I know my father did,” said Juan Molina, general manager, sales and marketing, Del Conca USA. “And if you’re really excellent at installation, you can grow a very good business as an immigrant, and it’s a leg up for immigrant workers to get their share of the American dream.”
But immigration reform is a tricky subject, noted Bettiga. “Immigration reform is necessary and long overdue, but the construction industry has used this labor pool for years; the reform may cause many installation companies numerous challenges as they learn about the reform and make preparations to conform,” he said.
Lori Kirk-Rolley, vice president, brand marketing, Dal-Tile Corporation, said that support of professional installers would help ensure the growth of the category. “Dal-Tile is committed to supporting training programs in our industry and helping professional contractors continue to develop their skills.”
Facing the challenges
Bettiga said the first challenge however, is identifying who is qualified. “We have been addressing this through the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) Certified Tile Installer Program for several years. We now have over 1,250 installers who have passed this certification,” he said.
Taking it a step further, NTCA and CTEF partnered with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, International Masonry Institute and Tile Contractors Association of America, to develop the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers Program (ACT). “This takes certification to a new level in that it identifies specific skills that project owners, architects, designers and consumers can feel confident about when hiring a tile installation professional. Certification is the means by which we can identify who is qualified. But it does not solve the problem of recruiting new people,” Bettiga said.
Some manufacturers have begun offering training programs of their own. Crossville currently holds training session for its Laminam collection. According to Waldrep, the company’s sessions are a combination of participants and observers. And, she added, the company has doubled the capacity of each of those sessions as well as doubled the amount of sessions for next year.
Bettiga added that the unions have excellent apprenticeship and training programs. NTCA is making an additional effort to develop apprenticeship training modules. Technology is creating a strong need for the association to offer tile installation companies real solutions. According to Bettiga, the NTCA is currently looking to expand its staff in the training and education department, and is developing internet based training programs for its members.
ACT offers certifications to qualified workers.