Certified Floorcovering Installers (CFI) hosted its 19th annual convention in Nashville earlier this month, providing us an opportunity to talk with CFI Chairman Jim Walker. He’s the guy that most people in the industry picture when they think of installation.

There was a great turnout at the convention, which in this economy I suspect was a surprise to many. But the real surprise came in the form of such an outstanding turnout of millennials; those younger, first-time installers who were hungry enough to buy a plane ticket or drive hundreds of miles and cover the cost of a hotel room. We’ve heard concerns for years about the aging of the installation community. I’ve attended a number of installation events in recent years where I saw a whole lot of gray hair, reflecting the basic concerns many have about the industry’s ability to keep a pool of qualified installers in years to come, with sufficient skills to keep the wheels of this industry turning.

How the younger crowd came to take the time off and spend the bucks necessary to get to Nashville appears to be a mystery to most, but the fact that so many saw the value of seeking out an education and gaining the proper skill set so early in their careers breaks from the industry norm and is the most encouraging installation news this observer has heard in decades.     

At the convention the World Floor Covering Association sponsored its Leadership Conference, an event that helps point installers in the direction of success. To honor the late WFCA CEO Chris Davis, a major supporter of installation in the industry, the CFI this year initiated the Chris Davis Leadership Award, which will be given annually. The initial award in Nashville was given to Bernie Madden of Madden McFarland Interiors of Leawood, Kansas.

Another extremely valuable feature at CFI conventions, that really goes to the heart of assisting installers in finding real success, are sessions that help attendees negotiate pricing and target their efforts to not just take any work that falls in their laps. As Jim says, “Sometimes, guys, there are jobs out there that you just can’t afford to install… you just have to walk.” In general these sessions help provide installers with the tools to better manage the business side of their trade and improve the way they market themselves.

We had an opportunity to talk with Jim about the situation in the installation arena today, and that perennial retailer/installer question-and-answer sequence that takes place on a daily basis around the country since the dawn of the tufting machine. Namely: “What do you charge?” “I don’t know, what are you paying?”  

According to estimates there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 installers in the U.S. The number may be less, given the effects of the recession and to be honest I’m not sure exactly when these numbers came from the Census Bureau. Anyway, when I ask Jim for his thoughts on how many of that 200,000 had adequate skills to do a respectable installation job in the field, he answers with no hesitation. “About 20%.” Jim says he was amazed when he met some of the 80% that came to certification classes and did not know some of the essential basics. He says they have never been given proper instruction. He stresses that these skills are easy to teach; the hard part is just getting them into class.

Knowing that the average age of the installation community appears to be increasing, their overall ranks appear to shrinking, and 80% don’t know the basics does not paint an altogether rosy picture about the future of this industry. One way to work toward solving at least the skill-level facet of the overall problem, according to Jim, is having floor covering manufacturers require that their products be put down by qualified installers. At least for the carpet sector, that role will very likely be filled by the soon-to-be launched S600 Installation standard, which has been worked on by players from every corner of the industry for the last couple of years.

The operative question about the standard at this point is whether carpet mills will elect to connect their warranties to the installation process, requiring that installation to be performed by someone who has been tested on the procedures of the new standard similar to the road they took with the industry-wide maintenance standard. If this does not happen, most feel there’s nothing out there to drive improvement and the new standard will be a meaningful but largely anonymous document.

Another factor at the heart of solving the industry’s installation problem, from this observer’s standpoint, is the retailer. Retailers need not wait for the industry to swoop down and solve their installation difficulties. After all, installation is the single factor that has protected floor covering retailers from the ravages that have wreaked havoc on the scores of other independent retailers who are simply resellers (such as clothing and jewelry retailers, booksellers, hardware and shoe store owners, and many others who are no longer in business).

In my travels I have talked with many retailers who have solved the installation problem in their corners of the world. They have done whatever was necessary in their marketplace to elevate the installation process in the eyes of their customers. They test installers; they insist that their installers adhere to established standards, often paying for their training. They develop best practices for installers to follow; they insist their salespeople explain and sell installation on the sales floor, sometimes offering standard and premium installation. They sometimes even put some of the installers on the payroll.

Jim says however the S600 standard will not necessarily put more money in installer’s pockets even though their knowledge and skill levels will have been raised. More professionalism and higher profit however do go hand in hand. Rather, Jim believes an installer’s income rests solely on the shoulders of each individual installer and the way each elects to conduct their business, first by running it like a business, developing a plan on how they market themselves and present themselves to their customers, and in selecting the jobs they choose to take and the ones they choose to take a pass on.

The CFI and its members and associated member have for years lived by and taught these principles, and in the process have produced thousands of skilled installers who are sought after by retailers, architects and designers, contractors and businesses around the nation who seek quality, trouble-free work. Add a standard with teeth and this kind of effort can be multiplied several-fold.

We salute Jim and Jane Walker, their sponsors, and all involved with the CFI on their successful convention and especially their successful approach that has improved the lot of the installation community, one group at a time, in all corners of this country with the diligent work they have done over the years. We wish them the tools to not only continue their good work, but to multiply it.