Add recruiting to the list of processes that distributors should consider overhauling to successfully compete and engage the increasing numbers of Gen Z prospects perusing social media to find the ideal workplace.
Struggles with recruiting next-generation talent into distribution are often blamed on a larger talent shortage within (and outside of) the industry. Others attribute recruitment problems to a lack of company name recognition outside of heavy hitters such as Graybar or Amazon.
Both are true — and then some, says John Salvadore, a managing partner in the recruitment firm GRN Coastal. Yet, he and others with decades-long footholds in distribution believe that many distributor battle scars in the war for talent are self-inflicted.
“Recruiting is a two-way street,” says Salvadore, a 30-year industry veteran with roots in the industrial manufacturing and distribution segments. “Companies that have a hard time recruiting are the ones that are doing it old school and are only taking a look at the candidate to see if he or she is worthy of working for them. I represent a lot of top talent in the marketplace and top talent has choices. If they walk into an interview and it’s an interrogation, nine out of 10 times they will not leave with a favorable impression of that company.
“The best distributors are out in their communities being visible, active and providing a good culture for their employees, a fun culture that motivates a person to get up in the morning and go there,” he adds.
Gen Z likes, dislikes, motivations and concerns are well documented, providing a roadmap for distributors that are serious about deploying a strategy that neutralizes vulnerabilities left by poorly trained millennials and retiring baby boomers tugging on opposite ends of the widening skills gap.
“Next-generation employees are not looking for just a lifetime job anymore,” says NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow Mark Dancer, author of Innovate to Dominate, the 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change series. “They want a job that does good by doing business. They want a job where they can learn in new ways. They want a job where they can make meaningful contributions on day one.”
Gen Z, in particular, craves stability and structure, and “are financially responsible in a way that millennials are not because some of them watched their parents lose their homes,” says Kathy Newton, a professor of Supply Chain Management and Technology at Purdue University and an associate dean for Graduate Programs and Faculty Success. “Like millennials, Gen Z is socially responsible, but even more so than their predecessors,” she adds. “They care about values and they want their actions to align with their values, including who they work for.”
Start with Your Culture
The question for distributors is how does their brand measure up? According to Dancer, who routinely works with traditional distributors to help them innovate their thinking and their models, winning at recruiting starts with a self-assessment of an organization’s values and the behaviors that best represent them. That’s how the NAW Fellow defines culture.
Before posting any new position, if a distributor is unclear about what they have to offer current and future employees, he recommends management and recruiting teams go to their separate corners and work on three lists: what they think the company’s values are, the behaviors that best represent them, and a subset of traits that align with the position they’re trying to fill.
“It’s not a tips and tricks for recruiting the next-generation of employees or a point-in-time answer,” says Dancer. “Distributors have to sit down and think about their culture. But if you’re trying to recruit next-generation employees, what they want from a business is not necessarily what distributors offer,” he says.
This is why he and others suggest habitually networking with current employees and potential candidates. Live on LinkedIn and Indeed. That’s where Newton says her students routinely go to find cultural fits. Listen to podcasts that target next-gen talent, visit online distribution communities and other forums that they frequent and take notes on what they value.
Follow these steps, “and distributors could end up with something very powerful,” says Dancer. “They can use this information as a template and work it into a set of questions for interviewing. They can use it for screening, recruiting and as an evaluation tool.”
Where are Your Relationships?
One of the ways Newton helps her graduate students connect with distributors and manufacturers is by exposing them to industry events and tradeshows. Recently, she took a group of six to STAFDA’s annual convention in Nashville, where they had the opportunity to learn about distributors and manufacturers in the construction and industrial sectors and interview with potential employers. “I take students to MHEDA, the big show in Chicago,” she says. “We try to do this as often as we can as well as get companies to come to Purdue to talk with students.”
The companies that excel at recruiting are the ones that make building bridges a priority, says Newton. “They’re always here interviewing or inviting our students to their events. They’re visible and have an advantage over companies that are not as proactive.”
Still, some do not see it as a worthwhile investment and others have never considered it — at least that’s Newton’s guess based on the inquiries she’s gotten over the years while networking at association events. “Just recently while walking around at a NAFED event, a manufacturer stopped me and said, ‘We can’t find employees,’” she says. Her response: “Where are your relationships?” Turns out, the manufacturer did not have connections at any universities, colleges or two-year institutions.
“You don’t always need a four-year degree,” says Newton. “Two-year colleges are an affordable option for small family-owned businesses that want someone with a tech background. Distributors need to find a group that they can build relationships with — a high school, a college, or an association. Most depend on walk-ins. They don’t have a marketing plan for attracting talent like they do for their products, and they aren’t branding themselves as a great place to work.”
Show Who You Are as a Company
There’s plenty of action on social media about Delavan, Wisconsin-based, Geneva Supply, Inc., but many of the posts, photos, videos, likes and followers have nothing to do with the distributor’s unique role in the supply chain. Five years into operating as a traditional household goods distributor, partners Jeff Peterson and Mark Becker decided to reengineer their business model after recognizing there was a lucrative niche in helping manufacturers ship and sell their products to Amazon.
In 2009, they founded Geneva Supply and today the company operates under the banner of solutions provider, acting as an intermediary that assists manufacturers in everything from third-party logistics and fulfillment to developing digital marketing and e-commerce strategies. “If people want to know what we do, they’ll look at our website,” says Peterson, who instead prefers to use social media to show who Geneva Supply is as a company.
Outside of branding itself as an “awesome place to work,” Geneva Supply is a distributor that shrugs off the traditional — something its owners attribute to any successful transformation. It knows how to accumulate likes on multiple platforms, has more than 1,000 followers on Facebook, and is passionate about giving back.
Peterson was inspired to start nonprofit BizTank (gsbiztank.org) in 2017 after he and Becker were invited to speak at a local high school business class about the journey that landed Geneva Supply in the 29th slot on Entrepreneur magazine’s 360 List in 2016. At the time, neither was sure the group of 20 students would be interested in what they had to say, but hands shot up throughout their presentation. Three students asked for a job shadow and the entire class expressed an interest in taking a field trip to Geneva Supply. Peterson and Becker saw another gap.
With a sophisticated production that includes a high-tech studio, two mascots, live streaming, national keynotes, a student-run podcast, job shadowing and volunteer hours, BizTank helps high school students begin to think through the often-asked, “What are you going to do with your life?” via an eight-week program that exposes them to a rich variety of career paths and entrepreneurs like human behavior hacker Susan Ibitz and digital strategist Sarah Evans.
To date, 239 students have gone through the program, with 13 high schools and one home school represented and $103,500 in scholarships rewarded. Although not the original intent, BizTank has become a powerful brand and led to the creation of the college internship program BizHub, and a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The latter produces a steady stream of interns for Geneva Supply and two recent hires, a digital marketing strategist and quality control for the warehouse. Both are 21 years old.
Peterson often receives LinkedIn messages and thank-you letters from participants. One reached out to him this month via LinkedIn to tell him how much she missed being a part of BizTank and added, “Great progress on the company. I love seeing it on my feed.”
“She follows Geneva Supply,” adds Peterson. He challenges anyone who says it’s difficult to make similar inroads. “It’s not just the distribution industry that’s struggling with the same set of challenges, but the truth of the matter is it’s not that difficult,” he says. “If a business calls their local high school and says they’re interested in sharing what they do, guess what they would say?”
Create It and They Will Come
U.S. Lumber Group is a millennial magnet, with more than 40% of its staff in the demographic. Many, average age 31, are positioned for advancement. Despite its recruitment success and a retention rate of 70% among its millennial employees, President Jeff McLendon says his company doesn’t seek out a certain age group and likes to steer the conversation away from the topic of recruitment. To him, if distributors want to attract quality talent, the focus should be placed elsewhere.
“For us, the destination outweighs the recruiting,” says the head of the Duluth, Georgia-based, distributor. “Creating a millennial place to work, which is not often done in distribution, is the most important thing we’ve done.”
How does their culture differ from others? Intent. Like Geneva Supply, U.S. Lumber Group is clear about its mission and articulating its value. “We’re a value-based company and have a set core of values that we work by and live by,” says McLendon. It includes an attitude of service and positively impacting the workplace, customers and surrounding communities. “Millennials identify with that,” says McLendon. “They feel like we’re not just about making a profit or what we can do with our earnings.”
Zeroing in on what they value is another key to creating a millennial workplace culture. U.S. Lumber’s training and retention strategy is an extension of the must-haves it says 30-somethings need to thrive: an authentic relationship with authority; work that requires a high degree of multitasking; and a career with a purpose. Creating an environment that encompasses all three is the result of years of tweaks backed by a strong commitment toward improvement from management.
“We’ve made two important changes to our onboarding process,” says McLendon, a Gen Xer who prefers to identify with Gen Y. “During their first few years of employment, we take all of the millennials who’ve joined us in a professional position — in procurement, sales, operations, as a supervisor — to a camp in the North Georgia mountains where the COO and I spend 48 hours onboarding them about the culture of our company as well as doing some training.
“We just took a group of 45,” he adds. “We play games with a purpose; do team initiatives. I even play ultimate frisbee with them at midnight. They crave that time with senior management and the ability to develop a relationship.”
U.S. Lumber Group has a systematic approach to nurturing its talent. Middle-management is trained on the nuances of coaching and mentoring the group. Now the annual review, referred to as Checkpoint, is more of a conversation about employees’ thoughts on personal fulfillment and advancement, capped off with a suggested career path on how to get there. Lastly, to manage the entire process, U.S. Lumber brought in a chief mentor of sorts.
“She’s also a millennial and is in charge of our onboarding and training process,” says McLendon. “She oversees their professional development when they first join the company. She tracks their progress and emotional wellbeing. It’s worked out well for us. Our employees feel like they have a sponsor and, having been promoted, she serves as an example of what they can accomplish within the company.”
Companies looking to make a significant dent in their recruiting efforts should study the example, particularly when it pertains to Gen Z, says Barry Lawrence, program coordinator of the Texas A&M Industrial Distribution Program. He’s also the founder of the Talent Incubator, a research program designed to prepare undergrads to make an immediate impact once they’re recruited. Through research projects and an exposure to the tools and processes that facilitate innovative distribution, students learn by doing and are paired with individual distributors to help them work through real-life scenarios within their companies.
The challenge fulfills a need that Lawrence sees in his students and Gen Z as a whole. “They’re life-long learners and always looking for an opportunity to continue to grow,” he says, “so what we see with the companies that have the most successful recruitment policies, aligns closely with what we do at the Talent Incubator. When they bring talent in, they go through the onboarding process by giving them the opportunity to work in multiple parts of the company, pick up multiple skill sets to develop and solve problems, and report to management so that they feel connected to the company and its mission.”
Editor’s note: To support the excellence within such companies, MDM is launching our Future Leaders Award program in January 2020. To nominate yourself, an associate or colleague for recognition as an MDM Future Leader, simply fill out the online form at reports.mdm.com/young-leaders/.
Studies show the youngest generation entering the workforce start looking for a potential career path…
Zach Brados rise from intern to director of business development by way of the marketing…
The 38-year-old industry outsider came into distribution when e-commerce was just taking off and has…