My favorite bumper sticker spoke volumes about education with just a few words: "Education is expensive, but the alternative is worse!" I can still remember the car driving away, and even though it happened almost thirty years ago, the sentiments expressed on that bumper are as true today as they were back then. I am not sure why many Americans have not yet gotten the message about the importance of quality when it applies to the finishing of their homes, but unfortunately, many of the same people who will perform due diligence on a stock, a sports car, or a racing bike, still do not have a clue about the quality of their home or the methods and materials that are used to build it. Because we have been unwilling to take extra time to properly educate our customers and our suppliers, it is our own fault as builders, contractors, and installers that this situation exists.
Having educated customers is essential to the concept and reality of quality, but it is also very different than the concept of an educated installer. Since the dawn of the space race, we have insisted with our children that working in the trades is neither desirable, respectable, nor something to aspire to. We have said that perspiration should only be the result of gym work, and in the span of one generation, have seen our society embrace the notion and the attitude that the worker bees are members of a lower class. I don't think most people feel this way, but the attitude is there, and it works to prevent a lot of talented young people from the satisfaction of working with their heads AND their hands. Yes, our country has a handful of dedicated construction trade schools, but they are neither conveniently located nor scheduled for the majority.
The current mood of the taxpayers suggests that there is no great rush to build more vocational schools, and until there are lines of young people waiting to get in, we will probably not see many new facilities built. There are a number of union apprenticeships, but they may not open to everybody, and they may not cover all aspects of tile installation. One of the best educational programs available today for tile installation is run by Dave Gobis at the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) in Pendleton, SC. Unfortunately, Dave cannot be in two places at the same time, and even though American workers set a huge amount of imported tiles, CTEF receives no funding from the big overseas producers. This lack of support, in light of the profits made on import tile sales, did not used to be the case, but it is now and it is a disgrace.
What can you do?
With consumer quality awareness low and with few opportunities for real schooling, it might appear that there is little anyone can do, but with a little work, installers can find many tools to help. In fact, everybody in the tile business has one asset that can be put to good use: their own brain. That, a healthy measure of persistence, and a little direction are what all of us in the industry need to make the situation better. After the first step of educating yourself, you need to find ways to teach the quality approach to the consumer, and finally, recognize that training and education, when done right, can increase efficiency, profits, and pay. Don't wait through six months or more of mistakes, misunderstandings, or redone jobs for your new hires to get it. Instead, start them off with a basic education and training program geared to your market and needs, and provide periodic refresher courses to all employees.
As for educating the consumer, one of the best ways to sell a quality image for your company is to host an open house where consumers can ask questions about quality, durability, style, and price. I recommend that my clients work with local newspapers (usually the home-improvement editor), and look for opportunities get lots of people involved with quality. A good example of this involved an installer who replaced-at no expense to the town taxpayers-a small city-hall bathroom floor that was poorly installed and met an early demise. With the promotional help of the local newspaper, the installer announced his intentions to replace the faulty work and invited the townspeople to attend a short presentation on why the floor failed prematurely (cracked concrete slab), on the causes of the damage done to surrounding finished surfaces by water leaking through the tile installation, on shortcomings in the local building code that allowed a poor installation, and what he was going to do to correct the problem.
With one article, the wheels began to turn. By the time of the presentation, the newspaper had printed two more positive articles about the event, local high schools used the restoration project to introduce students to construction work, hundreds of people took time to listen to the presentation and observe the tile installation work, and the installer benefited from tons of good-will promotion and a waiting list from people who wanted top quality. Every week, most Home Depot stores are filled with people attending free ceramic tile, paint, plumbing, and other clinics. Home Depot knows that to promote the sale of tile, all they have to do is explain the basics of how it should be installed. The big-box stores focus on how-to more than quality. As a small shop, even with a modest effort, you can improve on what the big boys do, make powerful promotional statements, and attract both good customers AND new employees. A small investment can help you reap huge dividends as well as do something good for the industry.
Resources available now
Educating the consumer and training new employees will not happen overnight, and require some long-term planning. To improve your tile installation knowledge right now, go to your computer and log onto www.tileusa.com. This is the home of the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), an industry association dedicated to improving tile installations through the publication of the TCNA Handbook and the American National Standard Specifications for the Installation of Ceramic Tile (ANSI A108). These two booklets contain core information about tile installation that is referenced by architects, material manufacturers, showrooms, contractors, builders and others, and are also bundled and available in a CD-ROM version packed with features not found in the printed booklets. Also on the TCNA web site, you can find links to CTEF, ask technical questions, or access the testing lab or other TCNA resources. The booklets and CD-ROM discs are inexpensive enough ($5/10) so that each installer in your company can have his or her own copy.
If you are not familiar with either booklet, begin your studies with the TCNA Handbook: it is user friendly, follows an easy to access format, and makes numerous references to more detailed specifications found in the ANSI A108 booklet. The TCNA Handbook contains information for installers as well as the other trade groups that provide the structure and other aspects contributing to the tile installation, and clearly defines the minimum acceptable standards.
After the two industry handbooks, the most important way you can educate yourself is to make sure you have current manufacturer's instructions for all the products you use to install tile. Many years ago, with little competition and often no difference between one brand of thinset or grout and another (recipes for thinset and grout were licensed by the TCNA), mixing and application instructions were often identical for competing brands. Today, however, thinset and grout are no longer generic and instructions for one brand should not be applied to another. Competition between setting material manufacturers is intense, and to gain a marketing edge, rapid product improvement means that instructions for some products may change on short notice - all the more reason to stay current.
Make use of a company's technical service department. Don't wait until there is a problem. Take a few minutes to say hello and review product application and installation. Find out where sales reps will offer education or training, and learn which trade shows your favorite manufacture will be displaying product. Trade shows are a great way to collect information because so many manufacturers are under one roof. If there are a lot of contacts to be made, or seminars to attend, bring your employees or associates and task each with a portion of the load-this is one of the most efficient ways to incorporate education and training into a small company. While you are there, make sure you visit the associations that represent your interests. Find out what they are doing to educate, and see if there is an educational committee or effort you can hang your hat on. Working together, we can make beginning and continuing education the industry norm.
Tile Council of North America
100 Clemson Research Blvd.
Anderson, SC 29625
Ceramic Tile Education Foundation
5326 Highway 76
Pendleton, SC. 29670