I recently was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at Qualicer 2006, an international forum held every two years in Castellon, Spain. Leaders in Spain must be congratulated for spearheading this innovative conference, which focuses on all issues related to the ceramic tile industry, including manufacturing processes, installation, and distribution.
As I jogged the streets of Castellon, you could see the tile factories on both sides of the roads. World Leaders like Porcelanosa, Saloni, Tau Ceramica and many others were all visible to me as I enjoyed my first day in Spain. The next morning, I was privileged to tour the factories owned by the Porcelanosa Group. To say I was impressed with their facilities would be the understatement of the year. I went back to my room more convinced than ever that the future of our industry as it relates to manufacturing is in very good hands.
The following morning the conference began and I found myself in a series of talks addressing education. My good friend Patti Fasan, leading consultant and speaker, who was to participate in a panel with me later in the week on Challenges facing the growth of the American Market, told the audience that the key to industry growth in North America was education. When asked how we were doing, Patti replied, "We are getting better, but we have a long way to go." Later in this session I was fortunate to witness a presentation by Colin Cass, Director of the Sydney Institute of Tile and Fixer Education in Australia. Colin is leading the way in Apprenticeship Training in his country. He pulled no punches in his opinion on the future of the tile industry. "If we don't solve the problem of quality installation; not only in Australia, but around the world, we will fail;" said Cass. It was all I could to not stand up and cheer.
The rest of the week I was able to interact with industry leaders from all over the world. I kept going back to my hotel room at night changing my questions to our panelists, who in addition to Ms. Fasan included Eric Astrachan, Executive Director of the Tile Council of North America, and Donator Grosser, longtime speaker and consultant for Ceramic Tiles of Italy.
The power of Shows like Qualicer, Coverings, Surfaces and others is the Networking with your peers. In this case, for the first time I spent a week with people from all over the world. And all we talked about was the "lack of quality installation" everywhere. One person, whose name I failed to get; said "I spent three days at Cevisama (Spanish Trade Show held in Valencia, Spain) and all I saw were tiles that are beautiful but pose unique installation challenges." This has been going on for some time. The tiles are getting larger, and come in porcelain, glass, metal, epoxy-backed natural stone and other formats. Even the dedicated contractors who stay on top of the standards and methods in our industry are faced with having to keep up with these changes.
The Future in not all bleakSometimes I think it is easy to say we are not getting the job done. But this is not exactly the case. Many organizations and companies have stepped up their efforts at increased training. Architects and Designers can now attend seminars all over the country on specification and receive continuing education credits from numerous sources. Dealers and Contractors can attend Hands-On courses from the National Tile Contractors Association and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, among others. Larger companies can take the initiative to train their own employees by purchasing the NTCA Apprenticeship Program. Simply stated, if you are serious about making a commitment to training and education for your company, the sources are available to you to do so.
The ProblemIn our presentation on the Challenges Facing the Growth of Tile in the United States, we identified three major problems with training initiatives currently taking place. The first is Fragmentation. There currently is no collective effort on behalf of an industry to work together to provide solutions to education. The result is that numerous programs (some with proprietary agendas and some not) are being held all over the country. This is better than not doing anything, but it can be confusing to those seeking an organized program.
The second problem concerns many of us more than anything. It is called Apathy. This is the reluctance and hesitation to proactively address needs in your company to train and educate your employees. This has been frustrating to many of us. There have been times we have offered classes in certain markets and it has been like pulling teeth to get students. This just should not be the case. With the growth of ceramic tile, courses on shower installation, proper installation of thinset floors, waterproofing and crack isolation membranes, to name a few, should fill immediately when they are offered.
When times are good and we are busy, it seems the first thing we cut is training. This should be the last thing we eliminate and yet we are too busy to train. The result is poor specifications, poor installations and job failures. The emails highlighted in the beginning of this article scare me more than economic downturns. We can't control the economy, but we can continue to increase per capita consumption of our product if we do our jobs right. Nothing is more destructive to our industry than a frustrated consumer who will not use ceramic tile again. What do you think they tell their friends who come over for dinner?
The third problem regarding training and education involves financial support. At Qualicer, we talked about this at length. Currently, the United States imports approximately eighty percent of the ceramic tile installed here from foreign manufacturers. If we are going to improve training and education here, the manufacturers of these companies enjoying success here will have to be a part of this effort. Until recently, much of the training and education has involved American Manufacturers, Distributors and Contractors. We will need comprehensive support from the entire industry if we are going to truly tackle this problem.
SolutionsThe answers to problems sometimes seem so complex, but they don't always have to be. One possible solution involves a comprehensive and collective effort at synergizing our initiatives in training and education. This could involve representatives from Trade Associations, manufacturers (both foreign and domestic), and distributors. This group could establish goals and objectives, and identify and solicit key companies and organizations capable of assisting in the implementation of a unified training program.
In the United Kingdom, manufacturers, distributors and tile fixers (contractors) actually disbanded their respective Association's and formed one large one incorporating all three. This has worked very well for them. I am not suggesting we do this in the United States, but I do think the concept of working together, especially in training educational efforts, has serious merit. Several of the foreign manufacturers I spoke with in relation to supporting education indicated to me that they would be much more willing to offer financial assistance if a collective effort such as this was implemented.
Accomplishing this will take some time, but it is not impossible. For now, I urge all of you to take advantage of educational programs and seminars offered in your area. If you are not implementing in-house training programs for your company, you need to start now.
The future of our industry lies in the proper specification and installation of our product. Don't make the mistake of sitting on your hands when times are good. Join us in proactively attacking a problem that we know exists and help us in providing a solution so that we can continue to enjoy the remarkable growth of tile in the United States.