10 tips for a tile apprentice to get to the top

Posted by Benjamin Santos on May 15, 2019
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I entered this business needing a job and responding to a Craigslist ad. Simple as that. No glory, no sign on bonus, no “Welcome to the team, son!”

When I tell people about these circumstances, they’re shocked. The words “Craigslist ad” don’t scream “path to the top”, but here I am, six years later. I’m a partner in a small, profitable tile installation business, I have two kids, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. We live comfortably. We don’t want for much, and I’m building on that steadily.

To say it plainly, the day I responded to that Craigslist ad I was at rock bottom. We all have images of what that means, but for me, it was no money in the bank, a truck that wouldn’t consistently start, a room in my sister’s house (in a new state), no prospects for the future, and no direction.

Tile, yes, tile, has given me a direction, a future. It can also do that for many other young trades people in this changing job market and dynamic world. Allow me to offer my hard-earned lessons that can act as a guiding light for any budding entry level tile professional.

 

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1. Pay attention.

In 2019, if you have an attention span of more than five minutes, you are a super hero! The smart phone, our closest friend and confidant, is constantly in our pocket, whispering, “Look at me.” FIGHT IT! I’m as guilty as the next person! I love the dopamine rush of a ‘like’ on my Instagram feed. It’s not worth it. Tile can often be monotonous, but I recommend you pay attention to your surroundings. If your head is in the game, you’ll pick up morsels of wisdom that you’ll miss if it’s buried in your smart phone.

2. Buy your own tools.

This tip is one that will open doors for you. I was lucky and learned it early on. Within one year of working in tile I had bought enough tools to do simple jobs on the side that resulted in my skills being built up. One story comes to mind. I had a friend that was working on his girlfriend’s house who wanted a shower built. I knew the basics of water proofing and tile setting, so I built them a simple shower in my spare time with my own tools. When it was done, I showed my boss what I had been working on. “Wow, not bad.” I recall him telling me. Then I picked up a backsplash on the side, finished that one up. This built confidence in me and my employer. It wasn’t long before I was installing at my day job.

This would have never happened if I didn’t put a little money into my future by buying tools. The possession of tools and the knowledge and skill in using them will increase your value. You will not be able to call yourself a tile setter if you can’t manipulate the material of the trade. Invest in yourself.

 

Female Apprentice

3. You don’t know enough.

This lesson ties in nicely with the previous. Untold numbers of people over estimate their own ability and don’t understand their own limitations. They will get a handful of tools and “I’m ready to go to work for myself.” Trust me, you’re not ready! Tile is the most technical of all trades. Even the most experienced installers will say they are still learning every day. If you have a person you are working with, stick with them. Work for someone else while you’re learning AND getting paid for it. You’re not taking on any monetary responsibility for the overall job. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Advance through the trade naturally. Don’t try to push too hard, too fast.

4. Don’t get discouraged.

Construction is known for its grinding nature. Many have allowed their emotions to get the best of them and have stormed off a job. Expect abuse, long hours and a thankless environment. It’s all part of the business. Try an affirmation every day, as many times as necessary. “Today, I will not be brought down by words and the circumstances around me.” This will strengthen your mind. It works!

5. Be prepared.

Before I leave the house, I say to myself, “Phone, keys, wallet”. If you’re a helper for a tile setter before you start the day, I want you to say, “Painter’s tool, tape measure, pencil, knife”. The list may be different for you, but that’s what I always try to have on me when acting as a cut man. When the setter says, “Where’s my tape measure?!” BOOM! You’re there and ready with a tape measure.

Every day find out what is on the docket, what you’re trying to get done. Be methodical, make lists. Pack a lunch, get high quality knee pads (always have them on), and carry your own tool box. My partner will say, “I don’t have a carpet kicker!” I’ll go into the back of my truck and grab mine. I am constantly saving the day. That’s worth money!

6. Fill the void.

The person you are working with will have deficiencies in their tile business enterprise. If your boss is great with a jump shot, you should bring the power moves in the post. I recognized early on that my partner did not have the entrepreneurial spirit. He was not doing any marketing or promotion, and he was awful at phone sales. So, on my free time I started our website and the blog. I took phone sales courses so I could begin to handle incoming calls. I recognized what needed to be done and took the initiative. If you are on a bigger crew and you notice the silicone isn’t at a high standard, become the silicone master! Bring the intangibles. The head honcho will notice.

7. Be Informed. Be Curious.

Everyone starts somewhere and a recurring trend is people performing tile work incorrectly and years later picking up a TCNA handbook and figuring out, “Wow; I’ve been doing things completely backwards.” By reading this article, you can cut out the epiphany phase. START in the business by investigating the NTCA and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF). Get online and join Tile Geeks on Facebook. Listen to the Tile Money podcast. Follow every legitimate tile company on Instagram. You will be ahead of the pack and you’ll be able to differentiate yourself from the low information installer. The first time you turn to the lead setter and say, “Let’s try it this way”, and you help solve a problem, that will validate your significant potential.

I also recommend sticking to the lead installer like glue. Mimic what he/she is doing. Pick their brain constantly. Ask them to mentor you. Become friends with them. They are the key to your success.

 

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8. Cherish your mind and body.

When everyone else is drinking alcohol or eating McDonalds, I want you to have a salad and go to bed early. Think of tile as a sport and you’re trying to become the star player. Tom Brady didn’t become a big-time quarterback by eating a ton of fried food and doing negative self-talk. He was in the gym when everyone else was partying, studying playbook when everyone else was sleeping. Imagine thousands of people want your work and if you plan on keeping it, you need to be the best version of yourself. It’s harsh to think about making a living in those terms, but it will help you keep your piece of the pie. I do Cross Fit three days a week, for example. While I’m suffering, in my mind, I think about the late nights on a bathroom remodel, finishing up the last handful of cuts. One cut is slightly off, and I’m running down the stairs, for the 50th time that day. Someone who is not fit will not fix the unacceptable cut. Someone who doesn’t have the strength of mind and body will say “Good enough”.

9. Ask yourself, “Would I pay for that?”

The road to ‘finish guy’ is a hard one and not everyone has what it takes. It takes a special awareness and a level of conscientiousness that often either comes naturally or gets driven down like a pylon into the Mississippi mud. My eye for finish work was driven in by years of abuse and self-reflection. In my early twenties, I worked for a man that was a real crab. We were building and installing docks or working around his house on carpentry projects. I wasn’t as handy as I am now and some of the work I was doing would be less than stellar. His constant refrain was “Would you pay for that?!” That always sat with me and still does to this day. As my standards have changed my “Would I pay for that” has changed, so it’s a term that can grow with you! If you wouldn’t pay your hard-earned money for the work you’re doing, it’s not good enough!

10. Be career minded.

Your mindset about tile can be “This is a job”, or you can head to the top by thinking, “I’m going to be the best.” Being the best takes an acceptance of a long-term plan and if you make one, it will pay untold returns. “Not having a plan is planning to fail”. I only started thinking of tile as a career option when I saw that it was a specialized craft and I had untold potential for growth in the business. Think of it like that. A specialized craft. Potential for growth. The ‘riches are in the niches’ my friend. Play the long game.

These lessons were hard earned. The path to the top of the tile business is not an easy one. Remember, the things we must work to achieve, define us. If you’re working in the tile business, you can’t be afraid of a little hard work. Each one of these pointers will give you something to aim at and they’ll bring focus to your daily work life.

I want you to remember, the more value you bring to your employer the more indispensable you will become. Your employer depends on you to make a profit. The more profit he/she makes, the more you will get. If your employer is successful, you will be too!

The path to prosperity has an external element, but ultimately the battle front lies internally, inside your heart and mind. Most of the tips I’ve laid out won’t cost you anything, the only requirement is dedication. Every day an old timer drops out of the business, leaving a considerable vacancy. There is no better time than now to seize your chance at a prosperous future through tile.

I did it and so can you.

As the great entertainer Milton Berle once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door!”

Topics: Qualified Labor

Written by Benjamin Santos


Benjamin was born in New Hampshire and lives in Georgia. A married father of two, Benjamin likes to exercise, hike and read in his spare time. Besides growing a tile business and a family, Benjamin aspires to become a professional writer.

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