There is no doubt that the floor covering installer's job is a lot easier now than it was just a few short years ago. Take patterned carpet for example. A hundred percent of the product we receive simply unrolls and matches perfectly. Well okay, eighty percent. How about sixty percent? Welding resilient does not add any additional time or stress to the project. Certainly we all agree that consumers never complain if you skip any dust control measures when installing wood, stone or ceramic. Not buying these statements?
The real facts are simple. The demands on our performance have done nothing but escalate. Personally, I think that the added skill demands are great. The downside is that installation compensation has not kept pace. The more shocking part is that yardage rates driven by retailers certainly appear to be lower for subcontractors now than what was available four or five years ago. It is sad when installation is devalued to the point it cannot even keep pace with inflation.
There are movements within the installation community that are attempting to thwart what is viewed as a downward spiral. Training is the first. Many installers are joining associations with a focus on obtaining better skills. Obviously, certification is key to this cause, which includes those offered by manufacturers. The premise is simple. If your skills are recognized, you will be in demand. After all, quality is worth it and the better pay will come along automatically. I fear the result is that all you end up with are more difficult projects. If the wage is elevated, is it really adequate to compensate for the additional challenge? As manufacturers push for certified installers, it helps drive fair wages to those that are good enough to earn those certifications. The only glitch is that while you use that knowledge on every job, retailers only want to ante up when they absolutely need that certification from you.
Installers are also expanding their skill base by moving on to other flooring materials. If carpet installation values are falling off, then get into resilient, ceramic, or wood. Go where the market demand has increased: more expensive products, greater skill levels and higher compensation, along with the thought that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. While this could be successful, you often end up subcontracting from the same group of retailers who did not want to be fair in the first place. The product may change, while the compensation mentality stays the same.
As professionals are vacating the carpet trade, it creates a starting point for cheap installers, i.e. the ones who take whatever is offered. The low buck installers are now moving into flooring areas that the skilled think are better opportunities. They do not view this as an opportunity to improve working conditions; it is just more work. They are bringing their "cheap is good" attitude with them. You can run, but you cannot hide.
The retailers, dealers and general contractors push the subcontract price down for the sake of being competitive in the marketplace. Is this group the ones to blame for taking money out of our pockets? Well, I hate to be the one to inform you of this. Those of us representing installation are the ones to blame for the declining dollar paid.
The last government statistic I saw was something along the lines of seven out of ten floor layers are self-employed. We have accepted all the responsibility of operating a business, which includes setting the costs for services rendered. Sometimes the hardest thing is saying no to a job. Most installers have cut back and trimmed every cost they can just to meet some low price in order to work. They are doing their best to hold some type of line on quality.
In many cases, if the working wife didn't have health insurance, there would not be any. If her job goes away, there is always bankruptcy for rising health costs. It is a good thing that installers have set aside big chucks of money for retirement. You could always dip into that in case of a medical emergency. With everything else going on, it is difficult to save for the future.
I guess the last thing to toss in the mix is taxes. This is a pitfall that is hard to avoid. Just when you think you are getting ahead, Uncle Sam is there with his hand out. Many subcontractors chose to not think about these things, but boast that they gross six figures and drive a new truck. What you get and what you get to keep are two very different things. I am sure there are installers doing fine, but how about that helper? If all is going so well, why are many of these helpers slipped in as 1099'ers and have no benefits? In about two years they will be the new under-trained competition. The cycle repeats itself, but what other career path is being offered to them? Why would they want to stay in a trade that you have to fight for every nickel and dime you worked for?
Has the time come to demand fair compensation and wages for the installation side of the industry? The quality work we perform coupled with our knowledge and certifications are our credentials and should dictate what we earn. Can we rally together and make a real change? Joining associations and groups is fine, but that is not the platform that can aid us. I am not an attorney, so I cannot give legal advice. Having stated that, my understanding is when a group of like business people gather and conspire to set prices, it's illegal. I believe the term is price fixing and it can lead to free room and board at the cross-bar hotel. It does not matter if it is a national or local group. Even a few independent contractors having a cup of coffee together and talking price is a no-no.
There is one body started a long time ago by a group of workers that assembled over these same types of issues. They established a forum that welcomes earnest discussion between labor and management. Fair is fair; both sides deserve respect and when that happens, everyone wins. I am talking about an un. A ion. Slowly now, put it together, a union. What issues are we thinking about? Wages, benefits, plus improved working conditions are all things that a union addresses. Add to that Journeyman enhancement training and formal apprenticeship programs. It is what it is.
I understand that this avenue may seem like a drastic move, but the current system is not working. If we cannot unite ourselves then realize there is no bottom to how low the labor rates can go. At least with a union agreement negotiated specifically for an area, a minimum labor cost factor is established. Why not pick up the phone and find out some facts. What can it hurt? You, your family and our trade deserve something better.
Getting Down to Business
July 1, 2006