Let me start with the full disclosure that I have an ax to grind. I think everyone from fiber and backing producers to salespeople, retailers, trade associations and installers should be aware an installer crisis could easily be upon us.

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 (FAST) Career Institute.

FAST will operate as a 501c3 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 with full-scale 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 helpers—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 create their own crew and operate their own business.

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

  1. No one buys a roll of carpet or box of hardwood to place 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.
  2. Since we are dependent on installed flooring, looking after installation, installers and the services side of our business is in our own best interest.
  3. 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.
  4. It’s only a guess but let’s say 10,000 installers “age out,” retire or otherwise leave our trade this year and every year for the foreseeable future. That is a considerable quality, knowledge and skills drain, and a tremendous installation capacity drain.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. If we show them a career path toward better earnings and to owning an installation business, we have a shot with them.
  7. 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 one way around these rules would be to set up an industry-supported school and let the school do the recruiting, training and placement.
  8. 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.
  9. If we want more and better installers, we don’t get there by certifying existing installers alone; we get new installers by pairing 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.
  10. Many of us can train an installer, but 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.

Apprentice training needs the help of the mills, co-ops/buying groups, associations and retailers. We will all work together or we will all suffer separately. The big box retailers are taking 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 the grassroots will have to lead. Nothing we do today has greater potential to damage our industry than a bad installer, or the coming installer shortage.

Don Barrett is the president and CEO of the Flooring Academy of Specialty Training (FAST) Career Institute 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. For more information, visit www.floorjobsfast.org.