School’s out forever? Not for wood flooring professionals. Technology with tools and machines is evolving constantly, flooring trends can move quickly, and installation techniques grow increasingly custom all the time. That means those who are just starting out and seasoned professionals alike always have something to learn, no matter their career stage.
Whether it is an in-person training session, webinar, online course, reading a publication, or watching a demo at a trade show, there are various ways for professionals in the wood flooring industry to continue learning. While the COVID-19 pandemic initially may have pushed pause on some in-person classes, it opened the door even wider for online learning and shifted professionals’ expectations for educational options.
From employee retention to giving a company a competitive advantage in their market, the value of education can have a big impact on a business.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report noted that 94 percent of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development. Steve Brattin, president and owner of SVB Wood Floors in Grandview, Missouri, echoes that sentiment, stating that if you invest in your team, they will invest back in your company.
“If you create that foundation and culture of value for your team, they’re going to be loyal and they’ll be passionate about what they do,” he explains.
The individual growth and improvement that comes from continuing education is something Bryan Day, training manager for Loba-Wakol LLC in Wadesboro, North Carolina, says can keep people in the industry and help break bad habits.
“As human beings, we all want to be better. The craft and the technical side of the flooring industry is an art. Often, people just think anybody can sand, anybody can put down finish, but there’s technique, time, and experience that comes with it. Through training is where people are able to fine-tune those skills that have been handed down,” says Day.
Dee Lenston, professional sales training manager for Bona US in Englewood, Colorado, notes that training and education can increase one’s earnings exponentially.
“A wood floor craftsman has a peak period of time in his or her career where they can maximize their skills and realize their greatest earning potential,” explains Lenston. “The faster they can enter that peak period, the more earning potential they will have.”
Brattin believes education is a powerful tool in separating yourself from the competition.
“It shows us the importance of hard work, which also helps us with growth and development on our team,” he adds. “When we walk through things with the homeowner, we have a checklist that asks if a contractor is NWFA certified, have they been through other certification classes, or what type of training do they go through on a regular basis? This way, they know they’re hiring a contractor who has a solid understanding of the industry.”
The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), based in St. Louis, Missouri, offers several certified professional programs. Brett Miller, vice president of technical standards, training, and certification for NWFA, explains how gaining that validation can be used as a marketing tool for a professional.
“In general, consumers have a preconceived notion of what certification means,” says Miller. “If they’re shopping for vehicles, they know a certified used car has gone through more of a checklist, and it’s a verification from the dealer that the certified car is worth more than the same car without certification. Certification from a valid professional trade organization gives the homeowner a comfort level that who they are doing business with has been recognized in the industry as the cream of the crop.”
Education also may provide a path to recruiting people to the trade. For instance, the NWFA’s Wood Flooring Specialist Apprenticeship Program (approved by the U.S. Department of Labor) allows companies to recruit a skilled workforce with tax credits and a clear training curriculum. This also gives workers the chance to earn a competitive wage from day one while having a mentor to guide them through the program.
For many wood flooring pros, there is no better way to learn than jumping in and getting their hands dirty. In-person training events provide the opportunity to hone their craft by doing.
Jason Rich recently attended the NWFA Basic Installation training for the first time at the NWFA’s headquarters. He is a business development manager for The Master’s Craft in Austin, Texas, and says going hands on with a floor has equipped him with the perspective and the knowledge he needs for that role.
“Watching something gives you a visual aid, but when you are physically doing it, the memory you get from that lasts a lot longer. It’s an experience rather than just seeing someone else do it,” explains Rich. “It gives you a lot more credibility when it comes to being in the field and answering questions and having the confidence to answer those questions because you actually have done that work.”
Training courses are not just for those who are early in their wood flooring career, though. There are opportunities out there for all skill levels.
“Wood flooring pros should aim to keep the bar high and raise the industry standards continuously,” notes Marc Schulz, vice president for Lägler North America in Denver, Colorado. “There’s always something new to learn, and there are always tips and tricks that will make the job easier or more efficient and help achieve a better outcome. Education is important to actually predict the outcome of a floor and take out the guesswork.”
Over at SVB Wood Floors, Brattin has even had office staff who do not work out in the field attend a class, so they understand aspects of the job, such as how hard it is to run an edger.
“When I went to my first NWFA class, I thought, ‘I’m not going to learn anything from this. I already know it all,’” he recalls. “By the time I walked out of there, I realized how much more there was to know and learn.”
Robert McNamara, director of marketing and sales for Basic Coatings in Bowling Green, Ohio, notes that some of the best skills sharpened in training might even be bigger than installation.
“Certainly, I learn a lot when we share during these classes. I also realize I need to listen more than I speak, even if I’m the presenter,” he explains. “Listening is a tough skill for anyone to learn, but it is very important for contractors, distributors, and manufacturers.”
Many manufacturers in the wood flooring industry also offer their own training opportunities. Of course, they highlight their own products, but they also note the importance of teaching skills and techniques in these hands-on sessions. Additionally, manufacturer representatives are often willing to visit their customers to provide personalized training or help them work through problems.
Part of Basic Coatings University includes the Factory Trained Professional designation. In addition to a classroom, Basic Coatings’ training facility has one half-size basketball court for sports floor-focused training, and a second area with different rooms and species of flooring that is regularly sanded, stained, and recoated.
Bona has a Bona Certified Craftsman Program and offers a three-day professional sand and finish school for hardwood flooring professionals. The company has established 10 regional training centers across the U.S., with five additional facilities that allow Bona to conduct training in the U.S. and Canada.
Lägler North America offers a one-day training Premium Sanding Technology (PST®) certification program that’s specific to an individual or company, to hone in on sanding techniques and equipment maintenance. They also offer a variety of multi-day training sessions covering topics ranging from subfloor prep, adhesive knowledge, installation, sand, and finish.
“In addition to showing how our equipment operates and its intended purpose, we also show how people can become more efficient with their entire floor sanding process,” adds Schulz. “The maintenance portion is also incredibly important because it shows how to keep the machines running and keep costs down.”
Loba-Wakol’s new facility has one side for sanding and coating floors, and the other for adhesives and floor prep, which includes leveling and mitigation. They have stadium seating for presentations and a lab to show the technical aspects between different kinds of adhesives and finishes.
“If you’re just going to put on a dog and pony show to sell your product, they can sense that. You’re not really helping them be a better contractor and technician,” explains Day. “Let’s teach from the perspective of success and being better. The added bonus is we feel like we have great products that are going to help achieve that.”
All of these manufacturers are members of the NWFA, and participate in the association’s hands-on training events in addition to their own. NWFA offers these events, ranging from Basic Installation to Master Craftsman, all year long throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Each course is led by NWFA Regional Instructors. In a normal year, the NWFA would host around 50 hands-on classes with close to 1,000 students.
“NWFA has put education in place that can appeal to anyone in our trade,” states Miller. “There are one-day courses up to five-day courses, geared from the beginner level up to the advanced level. We cover sales, claims, and equipment repairs in addition to the more-traditional installation and sand and finish courses.”
“If there’s ever a concern about a class being below or above your skill level, I’d put it aside,” he adds. “I’ve even seen industry veterans come into a beginner level class and walk away with some new knowledge under their belt.”
He notes that worries are wiped away quickly as everyone shares knowledge and learns from what each person brings to the table in a class. By the end of the first day, he says students are engaged, learning with their hands in a communal environment.
Curtis Riley of Silver Screen Solutions in New York, New York, also recently took his first NWFA Basic Installation course. He plans to return for intermediate and advanced classes in the future.
“This class was excellent. This is going to make my business skyrocket. I have a project waiting to start as soon as I get home and I will definitely apply everything I learned here,” says Riley.
Wherever a pro attends a school, one thing is for sure: there will be camaraderie. Day says going to a training session builds a network and mentorship that can last for years.
“As a flooring contractor, you’re in a city or town, and everyone around you who does flooring is the competition, so you may not really have a strong network there,” he adds. “When you go to a training, a lot of times, you’re able to meet somebody you wouldn’t see as competition because they’re from somewhere else, so immediately that wall is torn down. It creates an environment where you continue to talk to people after a class and call them when you have an issue.”
Miller has witnessed lifelong friendships made at NWFA schools. “People may know each other through social media, but when they get to work next to each other on panels in a school, they really are able to connect well beyond that class,” says Miller. “We have seen time and time again, where someone working on a project calls up someone they met at a training, and they will fly across the country to help each other out.”
There are a lot of different live training programs out there, so Miller suggests researching if they are backed by a reputable organization or manufacturer and whether they are about bettering the individual and the industry. Also, NWFA and the manufacturers we spoke with are taking enhanced health and safety precautions during the ongoing pandemic with hosting events. Regulations vary depending on the state in which an event is taking place, but some of those steps include smaller group sizes, social distancing, wearing masks, and taking temperatures.
Classes that may be taken from the comfort of home, office, or on-the-go are also a popular way of continuing education for wood flooring professionals. Companies are using e-learning options as a supplement to hands-on training and a convenient, affordable way to keep their entire team gaining knowledge. This is being done via formal programs offered by trade organizations, webinars, online events, and custom programs companies have created on their own. For a good reason, too. Docebo cites a study conducted by IBM as showing that for every dollar spent on online learning, a company gains $30 worth of productivity.
While online education is nothing new, with many in-person events canceled last year, it is no surprise there has been an online learning boom throughout the pandemic. From virtual trade shows to watching webinars as a way to earn CEUs, computers and mobile devices have been a learning lifeline.
In 2020, Bona shifted the bulk of the company’s training to its digital platform.
“We saw a dramatic increase in all our virtual training channels, including our e-learning platform, our Bona Professional YouTube channel, and requests for additional eLearning and webinar sessions,” says Dee Lenston. “Thankfully, we already had a robust offering before the pandemic hit.”
Basic Coatings offers online training and testing modules through Basic Coatings University, which recently was redesigned.
“Because of COVID-19, we’ve been doing webinars every other week since June 2020,” explains Robert McNamara. “These usually include a five-minute video, a few minutes of discussion, and then about 10 minutes for questions. They are short and sweet, about 20 minutes total.”
When the NWFA had to cancel the 2020 Wood Flooring Expo due to COVID-19, the organization quickly pivoted to offering a new virtual Expo on the same dates the event originally was supposed to take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The online event saw more than 2,700 registered attendees, and the numbers continued to increase as the recorded sessions were placed in the NWFA University (NWFAU), available for viewing anytime.
The positive response to having the ability to view those technical demonstrations and education sessions sparked the organization to expand its digital offerings by hosting a second virtual event in the fall (Hardwood Floors magazine N.O.W.) and introducing the NWFA LiveEdge series.
“Through Tech Tuesdays, Webinar Wednesdays, and Product Theater Thursdays, NWFA LiveEdge provides free, easy-to-access professional development with short, focused, and interactive videos,” says Michael Martin, president and CEO of NWFA. “It’s a quick and convenient way to enhance your knowledge about business skills, techniques, and new products. And, it’s complementary to the more in-depth wood flooring education we already offered through the NWFAU.”
Launched in 2016, the NWFAU is an online platform, which was designed to give individuals an opportunity to participate in wood flooring training when and where they want it. It boasts more than 200 courses and more than 10,000 individual users. More than 85,000 courses have been completed, at a rate of about 45 per day. Those numbers have increased during the pandemic, as more than 40 percent of new viewers have signed up since March 11, 2020.
The NWFAU is comprised of individual learning courses lasting 15-20 minutes, with an online testing component. Completing a series of courses leads to earning digital badges, which can be used on websites and social media platforms to verify a learned skill. In 2020, the NWFAU won its third SAP Litmos Lenny Award for Best Not-For-Profit Training Program.
Horizon Forest Products, a distributor headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been successfully utilizing online education for years.
“We currently have every employee who is on our sales staff signed up to take the NWFAU courses because it is a cost-effective way to have the sales staff trained by a well-respected association,” says Lori Garner, product team member for Horizon Forest Products. “The knowledge learned from the NWFA University has given our sales staff increased confidence as flooring professionals.”
For Steve Brattin, the opportunity to take advantage of online education such as the NWFAU is something he also feels is important to offer the entire team. He allows them to clock in some additional hours if they are willing to take courses and keeps them engaged with a little friendly competition.
“A few years ago, we put a program together where we’d say ‘whoever completes the most courses on NWFAU within a 45-day span, that has not yet attended NWFA Expo, we’ll take two from each division,’” explains Brattin. “It’s fun because it becomes a little bit of a challenge, but it keeps them moving forward with the classes. Do they all do it? No, but we try to get them online as much as possible and walk them through the courses.”
Now that most everyone has grown accustomed to this style of “on-the-go” education, are those expectations going to continue, even after the world returns to a more normal state?
“We believed that it was here to stay even before the pandemic, which is why Bona started investing in e-learning about five years ago,” explains Lenston. “The situation in 2020 further drove home the point that having virtual education and training opportunities is vital to companies and their customers.”
The possibilities for gaining knowledge in the wood flooring industry are plentiful, but don’t be overwhelmed by the options.
Some of the questions Brattin asks his team include: “What are your roadblocks? What are the speed bumps that keep you from succeeding on a day-to-day basis? Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it additional education that you’d like to see? What is your vision?”
Take stock of why it is important to you personally, as well as the value it has for your business and team. Think through what works for your learning style, budget, and available time, but do not forget to include the potential return on investment into those considerations.
Libby White Johnston is the Publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.