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Refining Our Industry's Value Proposition in Attracting Qualified Employees

Chairmanís Column - June 2012

Mark W. Kramer, Laird Plastics
2012 NAW Chairman of the Board

As I have travelled about my own line of trade over the years and met executives, some through NAW, there is one universal issue that is almost always discussed—“How do we attract the top-quality people to handle the challenges our industry and our companies will face?” Survey after survey will indicate that attracting top-quality sales and management-potential employees remains a key concern for distribution executives. If attracting sufficient numbers of qualified people remains such a challenge, it begs the question, “What can we, individually and collectively, do about it?” During my term as NAW Chairman, I am working with the NAW Board and staff to increase our focus on delivering the industry’s value proposition—and therefore enhancing our industry’s image—with notable source groups where such future employees can be found.

As an industry, we have tended to attract employees from within our own lines of trade. Certainly, recruiting occurs outside of our sectors within the wholesale distribution industry and also outside of wholesale distribution altogether. Many executives discuss frustration with such tactics failing to produce long-term sales and management-level success. Another important, long-term source for qualified employees is to hire those with only “first job” or university-level experience. It is with this source of bright and talented young people—who can be trained in the culture, values, and expectations of a company—that I would argue our industry has achieved less than it could—or should. One of the primary reasons for this overall lack of success is the fact that the target audience is largely unaware of the wholesale distribution industry and what it offers in terms of career path opportunity. There are exceptions, of course, and this is not written as an indictment so much as a personal realization from my own recent recruiting attempts at the university level.

There are two fundamental components to attracting quality university graduates to sales and/or management-development positions. The first is that the target candidates must understand who we are and how our industry’s value proposition fits within their career plans. This focuses on three questions: What is our industry’s image? How widely is it known? How well is it understood? Second, our industry must be prepared to train and develop these young people and bring them along from an academic environment into the full breach of capitalism. This focuses on finding the right university graduates we seek for the positions in question.

Many large distributors do recruit directly from college campuses, and they are well-known companies within the academic community of those schools. Less appreciated, in my view, is the wholesale distribution industry among many college programs that are preparing well-trained graduates for the exact positions we claim to be seeking. With regard to sales positions, more than 50 universities and colleges now have specific curriculums devoted in whole or part to instruction in the art and science of “selling.” Leading programs such as the one at the Florida State Sales Institute have made available within its School of Business an entire degree program in Selling. Many others provide multiyear instruction in selling and related disciplines addressing one of the key concerns raised by industry members—namely, that they don’t have the time and/or resources to train someone “how to sell.” These young people exit their schools knowledgeable in the basic underpinning of all business success and profitability—how to sell a product or service. This grounding, I find, puts them well ahead of their peers in terms of being prepared for longer-term supervisory or management-level training as well.

The wholesale distribution industry’s value proposition for these young people is directly on target with their reported career goals and aspirations. Surveys of university graduates indicate that while some level of remuneration is always important, graduates seem to have five primary concerns when seeking an employer:

  • the quality of the organization they will join
  • the organization’s values and purpose
  • the interest the organization will take in their training and development
  • the flexibility of the job role and their personal ability to become empowered
  • their ability to “make a difference” sooner than later.

The importance of what we do as distributors for both society and our industry, the pace and variety with which we execute our mission, and the operating environments that I have observed in dozens of wholesaler-distributors collectively position us as an ideal home for these young people. Our industry is the embodiment of fast-paced action, flexible job roles, and empowerment and decision making close to the customer with products and services that define the modern lifestyle. Yet, our frustrations seem to continue and the numbers of new employees from such source groups remain relatively small by comparison. How can we change this?

We can work at this challenge on two levels. At the industry level, NAW has reached out to numerous associations to better understand the depth of the problem and how others have approached the “awareness” and “communication” issues. We have gained valuable insights and the early indications are that further work to understand how our industry can engage in positive outreach is warranted. There are interesting angles to be pursued that will involve web technologies, educational support, collateral materials, and the latest industry information always available where it is most needed. At the company level, I have found that direct engagement with a university that supports sales-based education can produce great benefit. This, of course, takes time and effort to develop the right relationships and to make you, the distributor, visible within a school’s program. It also requires a long-term commitment to the young people you bring on board at your firm in terms of job responsibilities, further training, and career mentoring.

The advantages of refining our industry’s value proposition and improving the extent and quality of our employee outreach will be significant. Many of the future’s most-talented people are making their initial decisions on the images of industries that are created long before their moment of decision. If we are to win the hiring battle against other high-profile and highly attractive industry choices, we will have to work for it. We will have to understand the priority that this effort must have in the allocation of our time as executives, and we must be prepared to tackle this as a long-term process, not a defined project. My conversations with other executives within the NAW membership suggest that the timing is right for “right now,” the need is real, and the opportunity for us to do better is very realistic.