Carpet, Floor, and Tile Installer and Finisher Careers

Significant Points

    Most workers learn on the job.
  • About 35 percent of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers are self-employed.
  • Projected job growth varies by specialty; for example, tile and marble setters are expected to grow by 14 percent, while carpet installers is projected to decline by 1 percent.
  • Employment of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers is less sensitive to fluctuations in construction activity than is employment of workers in other construction trades.

Nature of the Work

Carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers lay floor coverings in homes, offices, hospitals, stores, restaurants, and many other types of buildings. Tile also may be installed on walls and ceilings. Carpet, tile, and other types of floor coverings not only serve an important basic function in buildings, but their decorative qualities also contribute to the appeal of the buildings.

Before installing carpet, carpet installers first inspect the surface to be covered to determine its condition and, when necessary, correct any imperfections that could show through the carpet or cause the carpet to wear unevenly. They measure the area to be carpeted and plan the layout, keeping in mind likely traffic patterns and placement of seams for best appearance and maximum wear.

When installing wall-to-wall carpet without tacks, installers first fasten a tackless strip to the floor, next to the wall. They then install the padded cushion, or underlay. Next, they roll out, measure, mark, and cut the carpet, allowing for 2 to 3 inches of extra carpet for the final fitting. Using a device called a "knee kicker," they position the carpet, stretching it to fit evenly on the floor and snugly against each wall and door threshold. They then cut off the excess carpet. Finally, using a power stretcher, they stretch the carpet, hooking it to the tackless strip to hold it in place. The installers then finish the edges using a wall trimmer.

Because most carpet comes in 12-foot widths, wall-to-wall installations require installers to join carpet sections together for large rooms. The installers join the sections using heat-taped seams-seams held together by a special plastic tape that is activated by heat.

In commercial installations, carpet often is glued directly to the floor or to padding that has been glued to the floor. For special upholstery work, such as installing carpet on stairs, carpet may be held in place with staples.

Carpet installers use hand tools such as hammers, drills, staple guns, carpet knives, and rubber mallets. They also may use carpet-laying tools, such as carpet shears, knee kickers, wall trimmers, loop pile cutters, heat irons, and power stretchers.

Floor installers and floor layers lay floor coverings such as laminate, linoleum, vinyl, cork, and rubber for decorative purposes or to reduce noise, absorb shocks, or create air-tight environments. Although these workers also may install carpet, wood, or tile, that is not their main job. Before installing the floor, floor layers inspect the surface to be covered and, if necessary, correct any defects, such as a sub-floor that is unleveled or contains rotted wood, in order to start with a strong, smooth, clean foundation. Then they measure and cut flooring materials. When installing linoleum or vinyl, they may use an adhesive to glue the material directly to the floor. For laminate floor installation, workers may unroll and install a polyethylene film that acts as a moisture barrier, along with a thicker, padded underlayer that helps reduce noise. Cork and rubber floors can often be installed directly on top of the sub-floor without an underlayer. Finally, floor layers install the floor covering to form a tight fit.

After a carpenter installs a new hardwood floor or when a customer wants to refinish an old wood floor, floor sanders and finishers are called in to smooth any imperfections in the wood and apply coats of varnish or polyurethane. To remove imperfections and smooth the surface, they scrape and sand wood floors using floor-sanding machines. After sanding, they then examine the floor and remove excess glue from joints using a knife or wood chisel and may further sand the wood surfaces by hand, using sandpaper. Finally, they apply sealant using brushes or rollers, often applying multiple coats.

Tile installers, tilesetters, and marble setters apply hard tile and marble to floors, walls, ceilings, countertops, patios, and roof decks. Tile and marble are durable, impervious to water, and easy to clean, making them a popular building material in bathrooms, kitchens, hospitals, and commercial buildings.

Prior to installation, tilesetters use measuring devices, spacers, and levels to ensure that the tile is placed in a consistent manner. Tiles vary in color, shape, and size, with their sides ranging from 1 inch to 24 or more inches in length, so tilesetters sometimes prearrange tiles on a dry floor according to the planned design. This allows them to examine the pattern, check that they have enough of each type of tile, and determine where they will have to cut tiles to fit the design in the available space. Tilesetters cut tiles with a machine saw or a special cutting tool to cover all exposed areas, including corners and around pipes, tubs, and wash basins. To set tile on a flat, solid surface, such as drywall, concrete, plaster, or wood, tilesetters first use a tooth-edged trowel to spread a "thin set"-a thin layer of either cement adhesive or "mastic," which is a very sticky paste. They then properly position the tile and gently tap the surface with the trowel handle, a rubber mallet, or a small block of wood to set the tile evenly and firmly. Spacers are used to maintain exact distance between tiles, and any excess thin set is wiped off the tile immediately after placement.

To apply tile to an area that lacks a solid surface, tilesetters nail a support of metal mesh or tile backer board to the wall or ceiling to be tiled. They use a trowel to apply a cement mortar-called a "scratch coat"-onto the metal screen, and scratch the surface of the soft mortar with a small tool similar to a rake. After the scratch coat has dried, tilesetters apply a brown coat of mortar to level the surface, and then apply mortar to the brown coat and begin to place tile onto the surface. Hard backer board also is used in areas where there is excess moisture, such as a shower stall.

When the cement or mastic has set, tilesetters fill the joints with "grout," which is very fine cement. Grout that is used for joints 1/8th of an inch and larger typically has sand in it. Tilesetters then apply the grout to the surface with a rubber-edged device called a "float" or a grouting trowel to fill the joints and remove excess grout. Before the grout sets, they wipe the tiles and smooth the joints with a wet sponge for a uniform appearance.

Marble setters cut and set marble slabs on floors and walls of buildings. They trim and cut marble to specified sizes using a power wet saw, other electric cutting equipment, or handtools. After setting the marble in place, the workers polish the marble to a high luster using power tools or by hand.

Work environment. Carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers usually work indoors and have regular daytime hours. However, when floor covering installers need to work in occupied stores or offices, they may work evenings and weekends to avoid disturbing customers or employees. By the time workers install carpets, flooring, or tile in a new structure, the majority of construction has been completed and the work area is relatively clean and uncluttered. Installing these materials is labor intensive; workers spend much of their time bending, kneeling, and reaching-activities that require endurance. The work can be very hard on workers' knees; therefore, safety regulations often require that they wear kneepads. Carpet installers frequently lift heavy rolls of carpet and may move heavy furniture, which requires strength and can be physically exhausting and hard on workers' backs. Carpet and floor layers may be exposed to fumes from various kinds of glue and to fibers of certain types of carpet. Tile and floor installers are usually required to wear safety goggles when using certain equipment.

Workers are subject to cuts from tools or materials, falls from ladders, and strained muscles. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that full-time carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers experienced a work-related injury and illness rate that was higher than the national average.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

The vast majority of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers learn their trade informally on the job. Some workers, mostly tile setters, learn through formal apprenticeship programs, which include classroom instruction and paid on-the-job training.

Education and training. Most carpet installers receive short-term on-the-job training, often sponsored by individual contractors; therefore, a high school diploma usually is not required. Workers start as helpers and begin with simple assignments, such as installing stripping and padding, or helping to stretch newly installed carpet. With experience, helpers take on more difficult assignments, such as cutting and fitting.

Tile and marble setters learn their craft mostly through long-term on-the-job training. They start by helping carry materials and learning about the tools of the trade, and later they take on more difficult tasks, such as preparing the subsurface for tile or marble. As tile and marble setters progress, they learn to cut the tile and marble to fit the job. They also learn to apply grout and sealants to give the product its final appearance. Apprenticeship programs and some contractor-sponsored programs provide comprehensive training in all phases of the tilesetting and floor layer trades.

Other floor layers also learn on the job and begin by learning how to use the tools of the trade. As they progress, they learn how to cut and install the various floor coverings.

Other qualifications. Good manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, physical fitness, and sense of balance and color are some of the skills needed to become carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers. The ability to solve basic arithmetic problems quickly and accurately also is required. In addition, reliability and a good work history are viewed favorably by contractors.

Advancement. Carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers sometimes advance to become supervisors, salespersons, or estimators. In these positions, they must be able to estimate the time, money, and quantity of materials needed to complete a job.

Some carpet installers may become managers for large installation firms. For those interested in advancement, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish because Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Workers who want to advance to supervisor jobs or become independent contractors also need good English skills to deal with clients and subcontractors.

Many carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers who begin working for someone else eventually go into business for themselves as independent contractors.

Job Outlook

Employment of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers is expected to grow as fast as the average for all occupations. Job growth and opportunities, however, will differ among the individual occupations in this category.

Employment change. Overall employment is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2008 and 2018, about as fast as the average. Tile and marble setting, the largest specialty, will experience faster than average employment growth because population and business growth will result in more construction of shopping malls, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and other structures in which tile is used extensively. Tiles, including those made of glass, slate, and mosaic, and other less traditional materials, are also becoming more popular, particularly in the growing number of more expensive homes.

Employment of carpet installers, the second-largest specialty, will experience little or no change, declining by 1 percent, as residential investors and homeowners increasingly choose hardwood and tile floors because of their durability, neutral colors, and low maintenance, and because owners feel these floors will add to the value of their homes. Carpets, on the other hand, stain and wear out faster than wood or tile, which contributes to the decreased demand for carpet installation. Nevertheless, carpet will continue to be used in nonresidential structures such as schools, offices, and hospitals. Also, many multifamily structures will require or recommend carpet because it provides sound dampening.

Workers who install other types of flooring, including laminate, cork, bamboo, rubber, and vinyl, should have little or no job growth because these materials are used less frequently and are often laid by other types of construction workers. Employment of floor sanders and finishers-a small specialty-is projected to grow by 11 percent, which is about as fast as average, because of the increasing use of prefinished hardwood flooring and because their work is heavily concentrated in the relatively small niche market of residential remodeling. There should also be some employment growth resulting from restoration of damaged hardwood floors, a procedure that is typically more cost effective than installing new floors.

Job prospects. In addition to employment growth, numerous job openings are expected for carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers because of the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The strenuous nature of the work leads to high replacement needs; many of these workers do not stay in the occupation long.

Few openings will arise for vinyl and linoleum floor installers because the number of these jobs is comparatively small and because homeowners can increasingly take advantage of easy application products, such as self-adhesive vinyl tiles.

Employment of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers is less sensitive to changes in construction activity than most other construction occupations because much of the work involves replacing worn carpet and other flooring in existing buildings. However, workers in these trades may still experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.