The World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), the International Certified Flooring Installers (CFI) association and the Floor Covering Education Foundation (FCEF) have announced some big changes as of recently. CFI now offers its first ever advanced commercial carpet certification as well as testing, credentialing and credit recognition for the graduates of FCEF’s “Basic Floor Covering Installation” program.  

We spoke with Steve Abernathy about his new role as COO, WFCA, where he now works directly with CFI, who is celebrating its 30th this year. He provides some perspective on the flooring installer shortage, the role each organization plays in remedying the problem and details the newest initiatives.

The following are excerpts of our conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety at

FCI: Let’s talk about your new role.

Abernathy: I’m involved in pretty much everything that WFCA does. While I previously focused mostly on the finance side as the CFO, I recently took on the direct management of our CFI division, which is more operational in nature. So, it really involves all of the day-to-day of each of our initiatives, each of our programs and divisions of the organization where I oversee the primary drivers of what WFCA is involved with. It’s a challenging role. CFI has a lot going on, but I’m loving being involved in it.

FCI: You've been in the industry long enough, so you probably have a birds-eye view at this point of how installation training has evolved over time, and its relationship to retail, distribution—all the areas within the industry. What kind of insight can you give as to the evolution and how we landed where we are now?

Abernathy: Installation is the crux of what we do as an industry. If it's not installed, it really doesn't matter what anybody else on the supply chain actually does. You can make all the product you want. You can sell it all day long, but if you can't get it on the floor, it’s all for naught. So, when you look at the importance of installation to the industry, it is the final, most critical piece of the whole thing. All of that good work that's done above that can just fall part if installation is not done properly.

Installation training has been going on for a long time. Looking at CFI particularly, this will be our 30th year of training in the industry, and in that timeframe, we've trained and certified well over 40,000 individuals across the country. But the importance of it is this—so many of our installers today have never had formal installation training. They've either learned it from someone else or tried to figure it out on their own. That’s why you get so much variability in the job; there’s no formalized way of doing that. The type of training that CFI does helps bring that formalization to it.

There are many different ways of installing flooring, and many of them are right in terms of the way it's done. But how you do it in the sense of following the manufacturer's recommendations, following the standards that have been developed for it, that’s a different thing. I may cut a board differently than somebody else cuts a board. At the end of the day, when the job is finished, there's a certain set of rules and standards that should be followed for that product to perform the way it's designed. So, that's what CFI tries to do, formalizing that education and teaching things the right way helps folks. Even if they have been in the industry for many, many years, [they] learn some things they might not have learned [otherwise]. So, we try to fill in those gaps in the knowledge.

If they pass the test, they're given a certification. I think certification in the industry is very important because it gives the confidence to the retailer and manufacturer that depends on that for installing their product. It gives them some confidence that who's doing that has been examined and tested. They've shown and demonstrated their skills, both knowledge and hand skills. For the consumer, it means they're going to get the best job that can be gotten when they use certified installers. So, I believe strongly in certification. I think it's underutilized in the industry, and we're trying to change that.

FCI: We’ve found ourselves now in a place where it is crucial that we train in a new workforce, a new generation of installers. You came together and created the Floor Covering Education Foundation to help build a curriculum that can now be placed in technical colleges, career centers, really anywhere. Let's talk about your relationship with FCEF.

Abernathy: FCEF was started by the WFCA and in partnership with three other large manufacturers in the industry: Shaw, Mohawk and Engineered Floors. We all came together to get behind an initiative to try to tackle this installation crisis.

About four years ago, we were part of a group called the Floor Covering Leadership Council. It was an informal group of trade associations within the flooring industry that got together and sponsored a large study to look at the problem of installation in the flooring industry. We all knew in the back of our minds what was going on and what we were facing, but to see it in black and white, that's a whole different animal.

So this study, done by the Blackstone Group, showed us that the mechanisms of training new installers had broken down. Really, it started happening intensely during the 2008 financial crisis when housing plummeted. There was no work going on. So, many installers got out of the business and many more installers failed and decided not to hand their businesses down to their sons and daughters.

We had a breakdown in the way installers are trained. There's no formal education for floor covering education in our technical schools all across the country. There’s almost none, literally zero. You can go get trained in HVAC, plumbing, electrical work, welding, mechanics. Those trades you can get at any technical college across the country, but you can't get floor covering training. So, that's a big opportunity.

One of the things that FCEF was trying to tackle was the challenge that the study told us that we needed to have 6,000 plus—the number varied from 6,000 and up to 12,000—new installers a year to come into the industry or we're going to shrink the pool of installers.

So, FCEF was formed to do several things. One is we had to make the industry aware of what’s going on, what FCEF was trying to tackle and rally the industry around that. But, what we're there for is to recruit new installers into the trade, to scholarship their education and to place them in the workforce. That's the main crux of what we're doing—to make sure that they turn into resources for the industry, and that they've got a good paying career that they can they can move into. And so one of the initiatives that came out of that was FCEF’s technical college program.

It began in pilot in Dalton, Georgia with the Georgia Northwestern Technical College, which was very successful. So far we've had about three cohorts, going on four here soon. That paved the way to get that back into technical schools.

FCEF’s goal is to have seven of those across the country by the end of the year, but the ultimate goal is many, many more. There are thousands of these around the country, and if we can get this program in there, it captures that high school graduate that's looking for a trade career. It captures them on the front end and brings them into the industry. When they graduate, they can go on and start as a helper and move on from there. So it's a fantastic program of recruitment. The colleges help with that. Of course, the colleges recruit for all the trades, but if that one is there at least they have a choice.

FCI: Tell us more about CFI—what it is specifically. Like you said it's been around 30 years, but I don't think people know enough.

Abernathy: CFI is celebrating its 30th year this year. For the longest time, it was probably the only group that was doing training in the industry of any significance. It was primarily focused on training existing installers, honing their skills, testing and certifying them. As far as what we do today, we're divided into three big components. It's a membership, sort of a fraternity if you will, of installers that are very proud and excited about being a part of the organization because they’ve gone through the training, testing and certification.

In terms of education, it's focused on two things. It is focused on the training of existing installers. We train folks that have been in the industry for some time. To be certified, there's a minimum of 24 months for most of our programs that you have to work in the industry before you can get certified.

Then, there's the second component of what we do, which is the training of new installers. So along with the technical college program that FCEF is doing, and, by the way, CFI was actively involved in the development of that curriculum and program. Dave Garden, who is the Executive Director of Education for CFI taught the first two classes there. He helped develop that curriculum and continues to be involved in that going forward.

The other aspect of what do is bring new talent in. We have what's called CFI schools. We have a permanent location in Wichita and at that location, we have a course pretty much every six weeks or so. They're five weeks long, sometimes six weeks long if they throw hardwood or a hard surface on top of it. We have about eight students at a time there. We train them from the ground up. These are brand new individuals that have never been in the flooring installation business, and we bring them in and teach them floor covering installation in let’s say carpet, for example. We teach them in a really intense, eight hours a day, five days a week, five-week program where we take them through everything they need so that when they graduate, they're able to go in and do a three-room house by themselves.

In that five weeks if they pass the exam, we issue them what's called an R-1 certification, which is a residential carpet certification, and we help get them into the workforce. Many times, they already have jobs waiting for them before they graduate. In fact, most of the time, that's the case, but if not, there's plenty of work out there for them to do, making a good living.

And the other thing is, you don't leave your education with this huge level of debt. Certainly, it costs to train to get your education, but the good thing about it is within that program of CFI, FCEF has recognized that program and approved it for scholarship. So, anyone going to those five-week programs can generally get a scholarship for at least half the cost. There are other avenues for them to get the balance of that [covered], and they come out of there with their education paid for. Then, they can immediately go to work earning money.

FCI: Tell us about CFI’s new advanced commercial certification.

Abernathy: We already have commercial carpet certifications in levels one and two. So, we have a C-I and C-II certification, but there was a need for more advanced skills that we don't teach and certify on those two courses. This is the highest level of commercial certification that we are now offering. It’s above C-II, and it requires a C-II certification to get into that course. We're doing things that you need seasoned experience and training to do.

We hosted a preview in Dalton, Georgia, and we brought in a lot of the technical services reps from a lot of the manufacturers and suppliers. [They] helped us hone that certification and provided input for us on how to craft that test specifically and what they look for. These certifications benefit everybody in the supply chain, and manufacturers are a primary beneficiary of that. They want to know that what we're certifying, what we're putting our stamp on meets what a manufacturer spec should look like. They gave us great feedback on refining and finalizing that program. So, the first class will be launching in a couple of months.

FCI: So, this next piece was exciting to see come through. The basic floor covering installation program that FCEF piloted last year has now achieved credentialing status with CFI.

Abernathy: Yes, we did recently announce that. The FCEF program is a phenomenal program, but the graduates of that program weren't really recognized in any way. It was considered entry level training, but there was no credential that they could take with them and use it in a marketplace. They're not certified coming out of it, but we did want to give them a credential that would recognize their formalized training.

In the FCEF program, they're learning skills across all of the product categories. So they're not just learning carpet or LVT or ceramic tile. They're learning a little bit of all of those so their career path can go in multiple directions. That was the purpose of the way we structured that along with the help of the [Ceramic Tile Education Foundation], NWFA and CFI. We all got together, and we crafted that curriculum so that it would give them a little bit of all of those.

We're going to test and evaluate what [students] learned both in a written and skills test that is going to be administered by the instructor for that course within the college. The test is developed by CFI, so that when they come out of that [course], CFI will issue them the credential of Flooring Technician I. It equips them with the ability to enter the workforce as a helper in any flooring category, so they can go right into the field.

If they hold that credential, they will be credited with six months of the 24-month work requirement. That is a prerequisite to enter our certification trainings. That will shorten that timeframe to 18 months.

If they want to go ahead and get their certification immediately after graduating from the technical college program, they'll be able to enter our five-week carpet program at week three. They'll get two weeks of credit for that. If they complete the balance of the five-week program, then they can receive their certification and enter the workforce.

They'll also get one week of our four-week resilient course, which is the sister course of the five-week carpet course where they can learn resilient and get certified in that in three additional weeks.

We’re issuing a credential, number one. Number two is we are giving them credit toward our other programs where they don’t have to start over. We feel like this is a good way to encourage [students] to get their entry level education coming out of high school in these college programs but have a clear path for them to move on and get their certification.