*This interview with INSTALL executive director John T. McGrath, Jr. was originally featured in XL North.
Flooring installation, like most skilled trade work, is often best left to the pros. However, hiring a properly licensed, trained, and certified professional to install the floor can, at times, be a challenge. That’s where INSTALL comes in. John McGrath, director at INSTALL, explains that the INternational Standards & Training ALLiance is a collaboration between flooring manufacturers, labor, and management that shares one simple goal – to deliver work everyone can take pride in. He notes, “The foundation of INSTALL is our formal, reliable training program. If it goes on the floor, you can trust that an INSTALL professional is prepared and trained to install it.”
John was a biology major at Drexel University before starting his floor covering career as an apprentice. After completing his apprenticeship, he installed floors for a few years and then worked for nearly two decades for his local United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America union in Philadelphia, first as assistant business agent then as business agent. He has been the director at INSTALL since 2006.
John explains that manufacturers lit the match to start the alliance. “Mills and manufacturers reached out to our union contractors because of our reliability and training programs. A labor management group formed with the Carpenters International Training Fund with a focus to have the same standards throughout the alliance.” Working together, manufacturers, contractors, and laborers created a training curriculum for all different types of floor coverings. John points out, “As you know, floor covering techniques and materials change, so we set the program to revisit our curriculum every few years just to make sure that we are up to date on the newest techniques and materials. By doing so, the manufacturers have an ownership of INSTALL and that’s what really makes the collaboration tangible to the floor covering industry.” He continues, “The mills and manufacturers have a vested interest in exercising the INSTALL curriculum. That’s where we’re able to affect real change and to actually improve the standards in the floor covering industry.” By specifying INSTALL contractors in their master specifications, manufacturers can trust a trained, competent, skilled installer is on the job.
John believes the most important aspect of delivering a reliable formal training program is in the quality of its teachers. “With INSTALL, our instructors are tenured, experienced trades people who get trained to transition into becoming professional educators. They receive training from Penn State University and earn a degree.” Additionally, through its instructors, INSTALL provides an evidence-based curriculum using scientific methods. “With us, the customer knows that they can rely on the graduates of our program and trust that they’ve been legitimately trained.” He adds, “Graduates are taught, audited, and tested. They actually have to prove and demonstrate that they’ve mastered the skills taught in class in order to get a passing grade.” Beyond technical proficiency, INSTALL also provides training in a multitude of other subjects, including communication, safety, leadership, and management, that can be of continual benefit to their graduates throughout their careers. In the wake of last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, the Carpenters International Training Fund created a COVID-19 job site preparedness course that educated participants about safety guidelines, disinfection, social distancing, sharing of tools, etc. In addition to the new class offering, the pandemic also sped up INSTALL’s move to online training, but John points out that in-person classroom experiences will always be part of their curriculum.
Beyond its exceptional instructors, INSTALL takes pride in its skilled labor graduates and contractors. So much so that the alliance offers an INSTALL Warranty. John describes it as an industry game changer. “It’s the only free extended, non-proprietary installation warranty in the construction industry. We are saying that we believe so much in our INSTALL warranty contractors that we will guarantee their installations.” Requirements for INSTALL Warranty approved contractors include having an appropriately INSTALL certified labor force, providing a track record of success, and being financially sound. “We’ve done over a billion dollars worth of work without one claim being made against the INSTALL Warranty.” He points out, however, “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s not like our contractors do their jobs perfectly the first time all the time, but they fix it because if they don’t fix it they’re going to lose that customer going forward.”
The success of the INSTALL Warranty depends upon talented, proficient INSTALL graduates so continuing to properly educate and train new laborers is key. Through its Career Connections program, INSTALL introduces the world of flooring installation and its job and advancement opportunities to high school students, helping to develop highly skilled laborers who are certified in their field, open for career advancement, and free of student loan debt. The program also focuses on creating diversity in the labor force by encouraging women to seek careers in flooring installation. One such way is with Sisters in the Brotherhood, a female component of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America union in which women are recruited into the trades and mentored throughout the duration of the program. “We definitely understand that the workforce has to become more diverse. We can not rely on the same demographics,” John states. “We have to overcome that and we are working very hard at increasing our female membership.”
John is quick to compliment young flooring professionals. “I’m really impressed with the millennial generation. They’re so much smarter than we were when I first started and they’re using their heads just as much as they’re using their muscles.” He continues, “Career long training is embraced by millennials and that is their plan. ‘I’m going to start out here. I’m going to learn as much as I can.’ I just think we’re getting such a smarter, more productive workforce.” He encourages those currently starting their careers in flooring to embrace change because it is a constant in this industry.
Changes and trends in flooring installation are often spotted early at INSTALL because of the alliance’s broad reach with its network of instructors who report back to John. “It’s incumbent upon me to always have my antenna up, to look and see where the trends seem to be coming from and to make sure that we can deliver value for those trends.” He continues, “It’s very competitive out there. We need to make sure that we can provide the answers at a competitive price.” What changes have surprised John? The increase in the popularity of hard surfaces is one. “If you had asked me this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said anything at all about any hard surface floor covering. I would have never mentioned terrazzo. I would have never mentioned concrete polishing. I would have never mentioned ceramic.”
Because of these ever-evolving changes and trends, a need for proper flooring specification is crucial. When asked what he would change in the industry if given a magic wand, John points to just that — specification . “I think if we can educate specifiers about the necessities to ensure a reliable installation team then it would make life better for everyone in the industry. Too often, they don’t have the time because they have to know so much.” He continues, “They don’t know about installation techniques like they might have before. They don’t know about substrate prep. They don’t know about the many different changes in the industry.” How is INSTALL working to combat improperly specified floors? Education, education, education. “The installer is at the tip of the spear and is the person to make those decisions at the point of the installation. So you have to have an installer that is well-trained and aware of so many conditions that are necessary for the product to be installed correctly.”
As for the future at INSTALL, it looks bright. Currently in 49% of its marketplace across the U.S. and Canada, John plans for that number to be closer to 70% by the end of next year. He concludes, “I believe outside of INSTALL, every floor covering customer is taking a gamble with every installation. With INSTALL, we eliminate that gamble. We’re reliable – proven and reliable.”