Alternative Flooring Career Pathways and Succession Planning for Flooring Installers

Written by INSTALL / January 13, 2024

*This excerpt of an interview with INSTALL executive director David Gross was originally featured in a recent episode of Floor Trends & Installation’s FLOORtalk podcast with Beth Miller.

I have conversations with flooring installers regularly who express uncertainty in their career’s next steps or that they want to keep installing until they physically can’t do the job or they don’t feel they have the time or money to train someone in to take their place. I assure you there are other options. There are people in the industry willing to educate you on next steps, educate you on other career options and walk you through succession planning. You just have to ask.

I reached out to David Gross, executive director, International Standards & Training Alliance (INSTALL), to discuss these points. Gross got his start in flooring installation just like many of you. He worked alongside his uncle as a helper, starting around the age of nine. Also, like you, he did not fully realize that he was building a skillset that would carry him through a career in the flooring industry.

 

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Gross attended high school after college and got a degree in Economics and worked at a finance company for roughly eight years while still installing floors on the side. Due to a layoff, he decided to go into flooring installation full time. “I looked back and thought, you know what, I know a trade; I’m a competent tradesman,” he said. “So, I went into business for myself. I was installing floors for myself for about two years.”

According to Gross, what he realized was that he was doing all of the installation and not able to focus so much on the business. “I think to be successful owning an installation business, you actually have to remove yourself from the installation and concentrate on the business part,” said Gross. “That’s when I was approached by the Union and INSTALL to join the Union.”

Joining the Union gave him options for retirement and healthcare benefits that he was not getting as an independent installer. According to Gross, he used that time to hone his skills both on the floor and off. This afforded him the ability to move into different roles within the installation world, including education and training.

 

FLOOR Trends & Installation: What drew you to education and training?

David Gross: I was very fortunate to work with my uncle. I was very limited in perspective by just what he knew or what maybe somebody taught him. Those days there wasn’t even a computer to look at. So, we were very limited on the knowledge we had.

Once I got into the Union and I started working with these guys and the different materials—just the scale of the jobs, the type of materials—I never knew flooring like that existed. As far as I was concerned, these guys were like magicians. Their hand skills were incredible. I absorbed that knowledge and watched them. They took me under their wing.

After about 15 years of working in the field, the opportunity to be an instructor came up. I took it because now I could be a force multiplier and I could show the next generation all the things and all the skills that I have been shown so generously by all the people I worked with. I had to share it, and more so because with our program perpetuating it is very important. So, it’s important for me to educate the next group because they support the ones that came before them. So if you put it all together, it was just an incredible opportunity, and I felt qualified to do it.

FTI: For a non-union installer, what would be an ideal ladder to climb in the installation world as far as a timeline goes?

Gross: I joined a union at 32. So, for many years I was non-union, and I can appreciate that perspective. It’s a little more difficult when you don’t have the formal path, and a lot of them [start] as a helper. Then, as you start getting more established, the only way or one of the ways to make more money is to go get your own business, but that requires another skillset. In the meantime, getting a foundational skillset is the most important. You have to put in your time and get the skills.

After that, I suggest manufacturer training, maybe community college for different classes such as English or computers. In today’s world, you must be computer savvy if you intend to move on or do anything substantial. It’s just a fact of life. But there are opportunities for these younger people in the non-union side to move on to tech rep positions for manufacturers or succession planning just within the companies that they are working for.

Now, unfortunately, a lot of them tend to be smaller, so you may be on a crew of five people and three of them have the same last name as the owner. So, moving up in that environment is a little tough, but it’s not impossible. And if you’re a competent, well put together installer, the opportunities will come. It’s just a little more difficult because you don’t have that formal structure.

FTI: Let’s say you’re an army of one, and you’re entertaining the idea of hiring a crew or even just hiring one person and training them in, what advice do you have for that person?

Gross: One thing I will say is that there’s a lot of associations out there now that are focusing on training more than has ever been historically. So, if you would like to get more knowledge, and you would like to become more proficient, and you would like to be more productive, there are more avenues now than ever to get that extra knowledge. If you’re able to search anything on the Internet, you should be able to find them pretty quick. That’s a real good place to start to find out what mistakes others have made to save yourself a lot of growing pains, but you do have to be prepared to do extra work on your own.

Then, it becomes how do you define success? What is your context of success? Maybe you’re just somebody that wants to work seven to 4 o’clock and spend the rest of the time with your family and travel, and make enough money to pay the bills. That is a successful career.

There are others that want to get into estimating or tech rep or climb the ladder of success. There’s a difference between leadership and decision making. Maybe they want to be more of a decision maker. Maybe they want to earn more money without installing. These are all things that you must first ask yourself. What do you want to accomplish? And then you have to go after the skillset to be able to do that.

FTI: What sort of career guidance does INSTALL give to the people who are going through your training programs?

Gross: We have an instructor available to apprentices. Where you can evolve in the flooring trade really depends on where you start. We have a lot of people that come in that have finished time in the military or that have graduated college. We have some that have maybe a checkered past or some juvenile problems, or maybe have only a GED. That doesn’t prevent them from being successful.

Obviously, the more people skills and the more life experiences you have, the further you can go, faster. But we have programs like a third-year apprentice program that teaches communication skills, leadership and job planning.

Then, we have two formal classes for journeymen that are all about the soft skills that help you be more marketable as a person, as a professional, and then foreman training that really builds on leadership and your professionalism all the way up to superintendent and even collaborative training. It is a class that’s dedicated to a whole company. Everybody, from the owner on down to the warehouse manager, is invited to come out, and it’s all about how they can work together to make their company more efficient and productive. So, we have those special dedicated classes that are free to anybody that’s in our program, and we use that as a whole career development model.

FTI: Are there positions in the flooring industry that are comparable in pay to what people are making as an installer?

Gross: Another avenue is sales. There’s commission sales in flooring that people do very well. [There’s] all the management levels. But once again, not only do you need your skillset of how to install, but you need the people skills. The ability to gather data and communicate it effectively will help your opportunities in life just as much as your ability to install.

There’s plenty of opportunity out there, and just like anything else, the better you are, the more you will earn. There’s inspection positions out there that are unaffiliated with anybody, because you need to be a third-party, independent thinker, but you need a level of sophistication and installation to understand what jobs have gone wrong. You’re a troubleshooter or a case expert, an expert witness in testifying to what jobs had problems and what the issues were.

There is so much opportunity out there. If you were into the sciences, you could go to work for a manufacturer in the labs and help develop products.

When you think of flooring installation as a whole, you could be a podcaster if you knew enough to talk about flooring and how to communicate and do the technical part. You could write articles, there’s plenty of opportunity if you start thinking about what totally encompasses the flooring industry. There’s a lot to do, but you need that foundational knowledge.

FTI: What advice do you have for flooring installers who are interested in pursuing a different career in the flooring industry?

Gross: Training is number one. Get to the manufacturer training. You can come visit INSTALL. We’d love to get an application from you. There’s other entities out there that are doing some good training. Get the training. Get the skills. Put in the work.

I think you need at least two years on task, preferably four, to get your feet under you. After that, you may want to expand your horizons into the type of flooring you’re doing. Getting that one lane of floor—always putting in residential carpet every day, you need to expand into the vinyls, the sub floors. Once you have a basic skillset, then you need to just network with people in the industry. You need to go to the conferences. You need to pick their brain. You need to talk to them. You need to find out what they did to get there and see how you can try the path to get there as well.

We talk about age all the time, but age is not necessarily a determinant. It’s your life experiences. If you’re not savvy on a computer, I would spend some time learning at least like Word and Excel—this sort of thing. Then, you just need to talk to people and network with those that do what you want to do and find out what it takes to get there.

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