With a decreasing number of qualified installers entering the field, the installation crisis remains a hot topic of conversation among flooring industry professionals. Over the past several months, storeowners, installers and consultants have written in to FCI to share their thoughts on how we got to where we are, and what can be done to dig out.

Wyatt Whiteman, owner of Park City Carpet & Floors in Bridgeport, Conn., said it’s hard to incentivize installers to become better at what they do when the money just doesn’t seem to be there. “It seems in this business that the more you know the less you make.”

He said cost pressures from big box stores and undocumented labor also makes it tougher to compete. “If you sub out the work to three installers, two don’t show up, and the one that does show up charges a lot but isn’t qualified. You send him on the job and he’s unpredictable. I don’t work that way. I expect the job done right.”

He’s currently trying to teach his son the ropes, but “kids these days are so afraid of being wrong. So when they learn it’s a slow process. However, the unqualified guys out there are not afraid of doing an installation wrong. They’ll just finish it up and go on to the next place.”

According to Lewis Dunn, an installer in Lubbock, Texas, retail salespeople will “tell the customer anything to get the sale,” and then it’s up to the installer to deliver on these inflated promises. “The salespeople will go out there to the customer’s home instead of sending an installer out to measure and figure out all the things that need to be done for the job.”

John Carloss, owner of Venetian Blind Carpet One Floor & Home in Houston, said the greying of the industry is a real problem. “We have been fortunate over almost 75 years in business to have had outstanding and very professional flooring mechanics, but they are retiring and have sent their children to college to become doctors, lawyers and accountants. They don’t want their sons on their knees all day long doing physically demanding and exacting work.”

Because of this lack of interest from the current generation, “today almost all of our labor is Hispanic, but they are either American citizens or legal immigrants with a green work card and pay the appropriate taxes for income received. We operate with all cards face up on the table and in the light of day.”

Despite Texas being a “right to work” state, Carloss noted he would welcome the establishment of a floor covering union in his area if it meant appropriate training and certification across the board. “We should all be on the same page and the required pay schedule should be established for apprentice, journeymen and master. Until we can present a professional image of our industry to the American public, we will always be at a disadvantage in securing quality craftsmen from a diminishing supply of labor.”

Rick Menger, founder of Vintage Floors & Interiors in Dania Beach. Fla., believes much of the problem in the industry is the result of undocumented immigrants taking work by charging very little for their labor, which pushes down labor costs for everybody and makes it that much harder to attract new talent.

“I actually pay more than most, if not all, companies in my area. I pay workman’s comp, I offer health insurance and we have a 401k. This allows us to retain the best men and perform the highest level of work. I wish I could pay more but there are outside forces keeping the wages low. The problem is that even though we are very good at what we do, there is a limit to what one can charge without somebody else coming along and taking away our work. There are not enough no-bid jobs to keep us busy.”

Joe Russo of Joe Russo Flooring in Clinton, Utah, has been in the industry for 28 years and has never been more frustrated by “the lack of respect we receive from brick and mortar stores.”

He continued, “They don’t care whether or not an installer is certified or if they are even verified to work in the U.S. All they care about is how much food can they take off the installer’s table and put on theirs, and what can they try to get the installer to pay for. They do everything they can to screw over the real tradesmen and tell us they can get someone to do the same for less.”

Russo said he refused to budge on the price he charges for his installation work, since it’s backed by years of experience and training. “In reality the real installers and not these undocumented immigrants should be paid $8 to $9 a yard. When you factor all the costs involved in running an installation business, $3.50 a square yard is crap. Between insurance, supplies, upkeep of the vehicle, gas, the help and let’s not forget taxes we are lucky to make $100 to $125 a day.”

Floor Covering Consulting’s Mike Turner—who has 20 years of experience as a home improvement manager, former vice president for a large service provider across 12 states to a home center, and director of operations and installation for a specialty flooring retailer—said the lack of skilled mechanics is due to “a lack of vocational opportunities provided in the U.S. at the simplest levels of high school.”

He added, “It’s no longer acceptable for parents to encourage their children to embrace a skilled trade. In doing so we have created assemblers—individuals who can install multiple types of flooring in homes with little to no issues.” However, when issues do arise, “we know the majority will forgo the job as there is an abundance of work in large workroom environments to hide their true lack of knowledge.”

Turner said the best way for an installer to differentiate him or herself is through becoming better business people. “The greatest piece I coach is for installers to increase their business knowledge, which will allow them to become better installers and migrate into become a true mechanic.

“I’d also enjoy seeing less government scrutiny, so storefronts and workrooms can help create more mechanics. That will, without a doubt, drive labor rates in the right directions.”