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Flooring is exciting! (Now to persuade the youth…)

Getting younger generations involved in flooring is a challenge, says Martin Cummins. But we must try and try – and keep trying – to get them involved.

A HUGELY significant challenge in our flooring industry is taking place right now and it really is time for us all to act. While sustainability, costs, payments, and supply chain issues (among other challenges) have always been prevalent in the industry, the greatest challenge now seems to be skills shortages.

This has been a major topic on the CFA and within the council, with lots of hard work ongoing behind the scenes to look at what can be done, how to get apprenticeships moving, lobbying government, improving training etc – all the aspects we’d expect from our trade body.

However, each of us has a part to play to garner interest in our industry. If you’re anything like me you got into the industry without knowing that you would never get out.

The number of people I talk to who’ve been in the industry for 20, 30, 40-plus years is astonishing. I doubt there are many industries out there where people stay so long. This begs the question: why do we?

I firmly believe we have a wonderful industry with exceptional characters, product ranges, solution providers and, most importantly, skilled, and knowledgeable people across the board. In addition, I think we all earn a reasonable living out of it too.

Yes, there are bad days, weeks, or even months, but we stick at it, knowing we’re in a worthwhile industry and are doing a fantastic job to give the nation the wonderful floors they walk over every day. Admittedly, we all probably look at the floors more than anybody else, such is our want. All of this is what keeps us in the industry, so what else do we need to convey to let other people know this is a great industry to join?

The challenge for early careers advice seems to be that the word of flooring offers nothing ‘cool’. Even though we know fitting carpet is a professional skill, if the new carpet being laid in their house once every few years is all that someone knows of flooring, then it’s perhaps easy to see why they aren’t instantly attracted to the industry.

Yet there’s so much more in flooring to excite young people, so I believe we need to look beyond simply thinking of the skills shortage as a lack of fitters (although I agree this is a critical problem) and start to promote the wider range of job roles available in flooring. We have to get more recognition of the professional flooring industry as a place that offers long-term employment and a good living to boot.

Taking myself as an example, I’ve never been a flooring installer. I wouldn’t have thought of entering the industry while at school because I wanted to go to university. However, my career path took me into manufacturing – originally Laybond and now Bostik – where flooring products are made. Working in a laboratory, first on quality control, then research and development, gave me an interest in the adhesives, DPMs, and levellers we make. I wanted to know more and understand more; flooring was fascinating.

I was interested in learning how a DPM worked and why they were needed, or developing tests to identify why a particular floorcovering would shrink with adhesive A so you had to either recommend adhesive B or develop a new adhesive. I soon moved into technical services, which meant going out into the world of commercial flooring to put recommendations together, carry out product trials, and observe failures and complaints. All this brought me into contact with the wider world of flooring.

Meeting contract managers for main contractors made me realise the lack of knowledge out there and offered the opportunity for a boost to the ego as I could impart my informed two penn’orth. Explaining to fitters why they needed to use an adhesive in a particular way to get the best out of it was pretty much always met with gratitude. Meeting up with sales teams to train them in products was always good fun and a massive challenge too. There is also a great variety in flooring outside of what I’m directly involved in, which has been demonstrated to me from sitting on the CFA with complimentary manufacturers of anything from plywood and underlays to flowing screeds and vinyl flooring.

The teamwork in the flooring industry is another element I’ve found brilliant too.

I can still recall two distinct jobs in the same week early in my site-visiting career that perfectly illustrate the variety in flooring. One was a demonstration of an adhesive pumping system within a massive student development.

Getting the fitters off their hands and knees was the selling point, and the challenge was the speed needed to get a double stick system down in a short turnaround. The fitting team observed as I started showing them how to connect the lance, which nozzle was needed etc, and they watched intently as I walked the floor, spraying the adhesive down. They had never used such a system before and, as always with training and new things, when I asked them to have a go it was a young guy who jumped on it.

It worked, he loved it and I was beaming. When next speaking with the contractors, I took the opportunity to pop in and see the installations and it was a spot on job.

The next one was an old mill being refurbished into quality apartments. On arrival, the state of the subfloor was terrible: old levellers, quarry tiles, asphalt, different floor heights, cracks – you name it, the challenge was there. In addition, it was a ground floor too. I won’t go into the details of all the tests needed and solutions offered, but a few months later the contractor said I should go back and see how it had gone.

On retuning, I was genuinely amazed at what had been achieved. New apartments with LVTs (quite new in those days), solid wood flooring, carpets, and no hint of what had previously been a complete mess of a floor.

Flooring is interesting and maybe those of us who have been in the industry a while get a bit blasé about it. Knowing what I know now wouldn’t have stopped me getting into the industry, but if somebody had said to a young Martin, ‘Do you fancy going into the flooring industry?’ then I think I would have declined, thinking that it was only about fitting carpets into bedrooms. We need to get the ‘exciting’ message across along with the variety of roles available, the potential career longevity and earnings capability.

I believe that through this pandemic there’ll be a proportion of people who were happy working at home on a laptop all day, but there will also be a large number of people who absolutely loathed it. That is our audience in my opinion.

The industry is mainly hands on and would be perfect for those who are of a more active nature. I for one don’t have the answers of how we do this but it’s something we can all promote in our own little ways whilst the likes of the CFA, FITA, and others drive the message forward too.

If you have any initiatives that you think could help in filling the skills shortage, any contacts that may be able to influence the younger generation in particular, or indeed need help in your own business in filling the gaps, then don’t hesitate to contact the CFA to help us all combat the challenges. Here’s to a bright future for flooring.
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