The flooring industry has a problem. As attrition whittles down our pool of installation professionals, we have failed to attract fresh young blood to replace the professionals who are aging out.
Rather than hope for someone to come up with a solution, Romanoff Renovations’ Aaron Ribner, CEO, decided to tackle the problem head on. Considering he leads one of the country’s largest installation service companies, handling contracts for The Home Depot in 16 states through 48 offices, Ribner is in an ideal position to create a solution.
Having begun his home services career at The Home Depot 25 years ago, Ribner helped set up and integrate the big box retailer’s installation services offerings across the country for about a decade. In 2004 he joined Romanoff, “growing it from a small regional [installation services] provider to a national business which is now 10 times larger than when I started.”
Today, the company services its clients with a mix of 400 employee and 2000 subcontracted installers, with a focus on growing the employee side of the business.
The traditional model of second- and third-generation installers has shifted with those generations following the American Dream and moving on to opening flooring showrooms, working elsewhere in the industry or moving to other sectors entirely. Those who have stayed in the installation field have become more “mercenary”—often ready to go to the highest bidder, as have the retailers who hire them with their focus on keeping costs down.
“When you look at labor in the industry,” Ribner explains, “the marketplace has been mercenary with the industry taking advantage of labor in bad times and labor having the upper hand in good times. Our objective is to create a relationship that is longer term than just this project.”
“With our expansion into employee-installers [as we grew] out West,” says Alfred Perreca, Jr., vice president of support services, “we looked at ways to bring in fresh labor that wasn’t already in the flooring pool. We found that a large number of people who have the ability to do the technical work are willing to go down that path, so it’s not a labor shortage as much as it’s a skills shortage.
For the now two-year-old proprietary program, he notes the philosophy shift has brought approximately 200 new installers into the industry. He has drawn from sources like local schools, Goodwill, veterans groups and construction sites. “You need to try as many things as are available in each unique market,” he says. “Some will work and some will not.”
To entice prospective employees Perreca says, “We are removing the barriers to entry: providing training, tools and transportation.”
Ribner notes, “One challenge is that other trades—plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.—pay in an hourly format. But it’s a shorter runway in flooring. Someone can get to lead installer wages faster than to lead plumber wages.
“We looked at the whole picture,” he continues, “not just a single job on a particular day. You have to create an environment where people see it as a long-term career.” To create that retention incentive, the company offers a 401K as part of the package, health benefits, personal and holiday time with pay, as well as the tools, equipment and installation vans needed to be successful in their new careers.
“A lot of the benefits we offer are unique to our company and nothing stops someone from joining the organization as an installer and someday becoming CEO,” Ribner says. “It’s something we actually practice as numerous field operations managers start as installers and move up; one is now a CFI master installer and has risen to senior manager running the East Coast training division.”
Growth is actually integrated into the company’s training systems with apprentices working with leads until they develop the skills to lead. This includes continual assessments to determine growth and remedial learning opportunities, as well as assigning jobs to develop their skills without being discouraged.
The program has been successful for Romanoff with just this year’s pool of employee-installers already set to put down more than 1 million square yards of carpet by year-end.
While the program itself is proprietary to the company, Ribner says he is committed to helping the industry. “We are considering opening up and providing training resources beyond ourselves,” he explains. “Whether it is emulation by others in the industry or otherwise, having additional installers in the labor pool will benefit us all.”
The only caveat he sees is that the training “has to be local. When you factor in the cost for people including travel, well… We want to give people the skills to up their status in life.”