The lost generation

One of the most profound effects of the great recession on the flooring industry has been the loss of installers. Scott Humphrey, CEO of the World Floor Covering Association, said we lost two full generations of installers. Not only did we lose guys who were already doing the work, we lost the next generation of young people joining the ranks. Add to that the “graying” of the current batch of aging installers and you end up with a full blown crisis.

This is not some far off future threat — it as affecting us right now. One carpet mill executive was heard to say that the lack of qualified installers is holding his company back from selling thousands of square feet per month simply because he can’t get the stuff installed.

The problem is a complicated one. On the one hand, we probably don’t charge enough for installation — or for the flooring itself for that matter — but it’s difficult to charge more in today’s highly competitive environment when home centers are offering such low-cost installations.

There’s also the subcontractor versus employee issue. Jim Conerd, who owns a flooring business in a small rural town where he installs while his wife sells, thinks we need to put installers on the payroll. He said, “Retailers will make a total commitment to their store, the building, staff, sales people, displays, inventory, etc., but where is the commitment to installation?”

If stores would hire installers as regular employees and offer decent pay commensurate with experience, he argues, they would be able to attract installers and trainees. “Retailers need to get past the old mindset of piece-rate independent contractors and bring the installers into the organization as paid employees who make a significant contribution to the bottom line.”

Jim is no doe-eyed optimist: his dad was in the business and he himself has been a commercial flooring estimator and contractor, a retail salesman, sales manager and now owner. He is also a perfect example of the difficulties retailers face in trying to implement the installer as employee model — besides his own store, he works a full-time job at a factory.

There is no easy solution. If there were, we wouldn’t be facing a growing crisis.

Fortunately there is help out there. The WFCA and Jim Walker’s CFI are both working hard to tackle the issue head on with installation training and programs to help both retailers and installers. The WFCA is even looking to work with technical schools to offer installation training as part of their curriculum. INSTALL is another force providing high quality training and job opportunities, as are a number of independent installation training companies.

I know that right here on Long Island, you can make a very decent living as an installer. The problem is getting the word out and recruiting young people to join the trade. But one thing is for sure, we’d better find a way or we risk the future of professional installation.

Santiago Montero


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