While distributors often lament the growing talent gap, industrial distribution programs like the one at the University of Nebraska at Kearney are preparing students for a wide range of industry jobs. This story examines how UNK connects distributors looking to hire with students looking to work.
Historically significant for its role in America’s westward expansion as a strategic locale along the Great Platte River Road, the south-central Nebraska town of Kearney now serves as a key stop for distributors looking to hire the next generation of industry employees.
Twice a year, distributors and manufacturers from across the U.S. descend on the University of Nebraska at Kearney for career events that connect them with the school’s Industrial Distribution degree students. Last month, 110 reps from 28 companies gathered at UNK to interview dozens of ID students for summer internships and full-time jobs.
Students in the UNK ID program take a wide range of courses – accounting, business, communication, sales, leadership, marketing and technology – that prepare them for a career in industrial distribution. They also have access to a branch simulation lab (see sidebar) and real-world experience as interns.
But those aren’t the only factors that make Kearney such an attractive destination for human resources and recruiting professionals. UNK students possess a strong work ethic that makes them coveted candidates, according to numerous recruiters attending the October event.
“They want to come in and make a difference, but they know they have work to do to accomplish that. That’s what I absolutely love,” says Erin Owen, manager of staffing and career development, Applied Industrial Technologies, Cleveland, OH. “You could teach the same courses to students in different parts of the country and you wouldn’t get the same results as you do with these students.”
The ideal distribution candidate
UNK’s ID program has 130 students, with 40 seniors on track to graduate between December and July. The program boasts a 100-percent job placement rate among graduates who choose a career in distribution, which is about 90 to 95 percent of them, according to the faculty member Scott Jochum.
Though the ID program operates as an academic program within a state university, many companies view it as more of a training ground or learning lab for distribution professionals, according to Kevin Kampe, president, Womack Machine Supply Co., Farmers Branch, TX.
“The talent pool that UNK attracts – the farm boys that work on tractors and tear things down and get up at 4:30 a.m. and have a great work ethic and great core values – it just matches the Womack culture really well,” Kampe says. “They’re mechanically inclined, they’ve worked hard for a living, and they’re eager to learn. That works perfectly for our industry and for Womack.”
Company reps unanimously agree that students with an ID degree have a head start on students without one. The fact that many at UNK choose distribution as a sophomore or even a freshman means they committed to the industry at an early age.
“Companies are looking for go-getters,” says Hayden McKelvey, a 2015 graduate of UNK and now a Louisville, KY-based sales engineer with manufacturer Eaton Corp. “That’s what this program offers. Companies are looking for people with an entrepreneurial strain, people who have high critical thinking, people who can think outside of the box, solve customer problems and just have a business sense. Combined with the technical aspects of our program, that’s where we differentiate. That’s what makes us unique.”
Another differentiator: While a business major might lack the mechanical skills and an engineering major might lack the business acumen that a distributor covets, “The UNK and Texas A&M ID programs bring in the best of both worlds – someone that has the technical competency to sell our products and our solutions,” Kampe says. “It works out great. It’s the perfect marriage.”
Womack tracks the ROI and gross profit production of its employees, and UNK students are among the highest performing, Kampe says. Womack has 30 to 40 graduates of ID programs (UNK and others), with
many in leadership positions.
“They far and above have given back to the organization,” Kampe says. “I don’t know what we’d do without these programs. All in all, we’re able to find great folks, and the ones from UNK have been spectacular.”
Students as industry ambassadors
Students don’t find UNK’s Industrial Distribution program as much as it finds them. Many said they heard about it from a cousin or brother-in-law or sorority sister or friend. Once they looked into the program, they saw something they liked, whether it was the passionate faculty, the chance to combine business acumen with technical skills or the 100 percent job placement rate.
“There was nothing to argue about” when choosing ID, says Nate Evans, a 21-year-old senior at UNK who has already accepted a job with Cortland, a wholly owned subsidiary of Milwaukee, WI-based manufacturer Actuant Corp. “All those things were selling points to me.”
Students who are sold on the ID program often turn their efforts to selling it to future students. One of the many duties of the Industrial Distribution Organization, the student-led group that promotes the department on and off campus and helps the UNK faculty organize and run career events, is going into high schools to tout the program and the industry.
“High schoolers aren’t always thinking about (industrial distribution careers) at the time,” says Dan Carlson, a junior serving on the IDO leadership team as vice president of recruitment. “The ones that are more industrial minded are drawn to it, but there are a lot of other things we preach, like relationship-building for students who like interacting with people on a daily basis.”
Another student, Blake Slizoski, a senior who graduates in May and has accepted a job with distributor Iowa Fluid Power, says this recruitment mindset will live on after graduation. As Slizoski prepares to enter the workforce, he already has his eye on coming back to let the next crop of students know about distribution.
“That would be awesome to be able to come back and have that opportunity,” Slizoski says. “I hope to be the No. 1 recruiter.”
Landing a job or internship isn’t the only goal of ID students during the fall event. It also helps them dispel the stereotypes that some distributors – especially baby boomers – harbor about millennials. Dressed in business suits and well-versed in being professional, these students use career events to set themselves apart.
“I can’t speak for all millennials, but the ID majors are so focused and driven and ready to succeed,” says Harlie Brown, a sophomore and one of a growing number of women in the program. “We are loyal and like to network. I don’t want to say we’re the cream of the crop, but we are business professionals, and we’ve been training as business professionals, so we know what it takes to be successful. We work for what we want, and we’re always told that you get out what you put in.”
Importance of commitment
Wholesale distribution executives routinely bemoan the lack of qualified candidates to fill the industry’s open jobs. Not enough job prospects have the needed technical or sales capabilities to sell abrasives or bearings or cutting tools, they often say.
The fall and spring career events allow distributors and manufacturers to identify recruits for a variety of positions. But company attendance tends to mirror economic conditions, and those numbers are down. “From 2006 on, the economy really hit our numbers,” Jochum says. “2009, 2010, those were some slim years.”
Savvy companies come to the events every year, even if they’re not looking to hire, so they can build relationships with the college and the students, according to Jochum, who says it doesn’t take long for a college kid to forget a company’s name.
“If a company takes off a year, two years, three years, they’re like a new company when they come back,” Jochum says. “They’re starting all over again. It’s just like it is in the industry – companies have to also build relationships with students. You just can’t show up and have success immediately.”
Staffing a college job fair booth isn’t enough for distributors that hope to address the industry’s growing talent gap. Partnering with a university program – specifically an ID program like UNK’s – can yield
innumerable benefits for the company, its recruits and the college it partners with, as well as the industry as a whole.
“You can really see the shortsightedness of some companies because they come when times are good and don’t come when times are bad,” says Matt Howe, a 2010 UNK ID graduate based in Omaha, NE, as a profit center manager for BgB Supply, a subsidiary of Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc., Irving, TX. “We’re committed to stay here regardless of the economy because we want the long-term relationships. Some of the students we talk to twice a year, every year, until they graduate.”
Applied Industrial has been attending UNK career events for 20 years, which is also how long it has operated a sales and management training program. “UNK has partnered with us from the beginning,” Owen says. “We’ve seen a lot of success come out of their program.”
While Applied has consistently attended UNK career events, it had to skip 2009 to 2011 when its sales and management program was temporarily suspended, a common theme for the industry. Applied returned as the Great Recession subsided, but it had to re-establish itself with students.
“By missing out during that time frame, students didn’t know us,” Owen says. “We came back after the recession and students would ask, ‘Is this your first year here?’ That was a hard lesson to learn. We experienced the challenges that can occur when you step away from a school that’s important to you. For schools with industrial distribution programs, it’s so competitive to hire their students that you can’t walk away.
“You’ve got to be here, you’ve got to be visible and you’ve got to do things other than just attend the career fairs. So we try, whenever we can, to be involved in other events.”
‘Nurture the younger generation’
One way UNK fosters relationships with distributors is through program partner sponsorship. Current program partners are Actuant, CED, Cummins Inc., IFP, The NMC Group, Winsupply Inc. and Womack Machine. Through a $10,000 charitable donation, these companies are recognized on career event materials, have larger booth space to hold more interviews and make presentations to ID students during a partner spotlight event.
“Being a program partner has put us first and foremost in students’ minds because they always recognize us,” Howe says. “If we go to any other career fair, nobody has any idea who CED is. We don’t have a centralized brand.”
For Womack, being a program partner is critical not only for the students that Womack might bring on for an internship or the grads it might hire, but also because it represents an investment in the industry.
“Something that companies overlook is only partnering with universities when they want to hire somebody,” Kampe says. “For us, you’ve got to make a commitment to these programs, and be a part of them and support them, because you may not need that talent in a particular year, but you’ll need that talent long-term. It’s not just about the talent that you want; it’s about the talent for the industry as a whole. Everybody needs great folks.”
Enrollment is down at UNK’s ID program, from a peak of around 215 in 1999-2000 to 130 today, but when more companies support an ID program, “you’re also giving to industrial distribution,” Jochum says. “You’re trying to help us continue to bring young people into the discipline.”
While attending career fairs can fulfill short-term needs such as internships and current job openings, the long game is even more important, according to Chris Young, OEM sales leader, Enerpac Americas, an Actuant subsidiary.
Having a presence on a college campus must be part of a bigger strategy that should come from the C-suite. Company leaders that don’t prioritize recruiting are likely to face dire consequences.
“If you don’t have a defined program, you’re losing out on the kids you need to be bringing in. If you’re not careful, all of your veteran sales talent is going to be gone, your business could be gone next, because they’re the lifeblood of this business,” Young says. “You’ve got to nurture the younger generation.”