Class Is In Session

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Industrial Distribution. To view it in its original format, click here.

According to Industrial Distribution’s 65th Annual Survey of Distributor Operations, 97 percent of respondents believe that it is either somewhat or very important to hire technically trained staff for careers in the distribution market. The ability to find individuals to fit that profile, however, proves to be an overwhelming and often impossible task for managers looking to replace an aging workforce with competent employees. The problem doesn’t seem to be a fact that young men and women don’t want to work in the field of distribution, but rather that they don’t even know that the field exists.

This lack of awareness stems from a variety of sources. Just as most individuals today don’t necessarily think about how their food arrives on their plate from a farm (but rather from a grocer), people often don’t have to think about from where their industrial products arrive. They can walk to the local hardware store and purchase a cordless drill, but they don’t have to consider the manufacturing process and the often multi-level logistics chain involved in moving that durable good from assembly line to aisle five. A second factor is that distribution, like manufacturing in today’s market, just isn’t “sexy” anymore. Neither entity is portrayed by the media or popular culture as a desirable end-goal for a young career person.

Consequently, over the past several decades colleges and universities at large have not targeted this market niche in their growth strategies or recruitment efforts. Billboards don’t exist touting the multi-faceted benefits of becoming a technical sales partner or global operations director. They do exist to promote the idea of being a nurse, public service employee, or computer programmer, complete with programs dedicated to helping propel a young person forward in that career. As a result of this general lack of knowledge concerning the field, distributors are hurting to find competent individuals to fill the positions that are becoming available through retirements of key individuals and the rapidly increasing role that distributorships are playing in the global supply chain environment.

One program in the industry is trying to change that. Industrial Careers Pathway (ICP), as a concept, was created to address this very need in 2002 by the PTDA (Power Transmission Distributors Association) Foundation. The organization began by working with community colleges to create programs that in turn would create qualified employees and provide the industry with key entry-level talent. Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, MI enrolled the first students in its Industrial Distribution Certificate Program in 2003, and by 2006 six other community colleges had also followed suit.

This was an effort to immediately begin supplying the industry with the qualified employees that it needed. Although effective, the results served a very small percentage of the United States, a country which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a 2009 Wholesale Distribution Economic Report, attributes around two percent of its GDP to the industrial distribution sector each year. A much more emphatic approach was needed to really reach the ICP goal of “meeting the need for a skilled industrial distribution workforce for today and tomorrow.”

Targeted Programs

One step in this direction was the “Elements of Distribution” online curriculum developed in 2008. This online textbook sought to fill a gap both in the traditional education sector and in the workplace. Community Colleges were encouraged to use the curriculum in their existing courses, and employers were given the opportunity to use it to train new employees who might also be new to the industry. The curriculum was the equivalent of a three credit course, and sought to give the student an overview of how “industrial distribution fits into the overall, global economic landscape, and is exposed to the various business models that exist in the industry.” With segments entitled “Sales = Service in Distribution,” “Adding Value,” and “Profitability: Competing without Price Cutting,” the curriculum provides both breadth and depth to anyone looking at or entering the field of distribution.

In addition to ICP’s efforts at education in the field of distribution, there are several universities across the country that are also offering programs in industrial distribution and supply chain management. One such program got its start back in 1956 at Texas A&M University. The program is titled “Industrial Distribution” and was created in a time when distributors were a rapidly growing part of the economy — post-war industrialization. Embraced in an area with large ties to distribution (think Houston Wire & Cable, Hisco, MRC Global, and others), the program near Houston in College Station grew quickly to include both an undergraduate and Master’s program, and a distributor-focused research center in 1988. It currently has 20 faculty members and over 500 applicants competing for just 100 seats each year. Dr. F. Barry Lawrence, the current director of the program, said that the majority of their graduates enter industrial sales as a career field, but around 30 percent also choose to direct their career in supply chain management roles. Lawrence also notes that most of their students are “engineering majors who find they like technical knowledge but don’t want to be in cubicles designing products or systems.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is home to the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management, housed in the School of Business. Created in 1991, the program has over 150 alumni and each year they see demand for the program grow as both students and employers begin to recognize the competitive advantages offered them in the technical knowledge and training that a program like this has. The Center was initially formed when W.W. Grainger approached the School of Business with an intense need to fill the talent gap they were experiencing as rapid globalization forced distributors to fundamentally change the way they did business. Offering both an undergraduate specialization and an MBA in Supply Chain Management, the Center prepares students to work in diverse industries in the areas of supply and demand planning and forecasting, risk management, sourcing, and consulting. They see students from all areas of education, including a recent elementary school teacher who went through the program. Verda Blythe, director of the program, says that the most important qualifications for a student to enter the field are good communication skills and a head for analytical thinking and leadership.

Ongoing Struggle

In 2009, ICP took a step back to reevaluate what they had accomplished so far. They decided that the biggest hurdle they were trying to overcome was still just getting the word out about the industry as a whole. They decided to very specifically target the 18-34 year old demographic in order to attract young talent that would be with the industry for a more extensive period of time, and opted to do so through three approaches: outreach, connections, and preparation.

They already had a good grip on the concept of preparation; they had designed the curriculum and worked with colleges to set up programs for the industry. Their main focus now was to spread the word. Consequently, they redesigned www.industrialcareerspathway.org to provide information to reach their new target audience, including video presentations that shine a light on the industry. One series on the site is entitled “A Day in the Life” and features various distributors talking about what they actually do on an average workday, hoping to raise interest in an important and challenging field.

Alongside of the website, ICP launched the ICP Ambassadors Corps, a group made up of industry volunteers from all over the country. These volunteers target this 18-34 age bracket and visit high schools, colleges, and business and veterans groups in their area to spread the word about the industry and actively recruit individuals into programs already in place. One such Ambassador is Doug Savage, President of Bearing Service Inc. in Livonia, MI. He saw a need both for his own business and for the industry at large that prompted him to partner with ICP in this endeavor, noting that “With an aging workforce, Bearing Service has a large need now and in the future for people who are excited about our industry. Other industries are made more glamorous by the education system and the media, but for some people, a career in industrial distribution is as exciting a business as any.”

Savage worked with his local community college to understand the needs of their students and how to align them in a program to address the needs of the industry. The program addresses the entry level skills that students need in order to work in industrial distribution, but Savage also hopes that it “gives them an appetite for the growth and advancement available” in the industry, introducing them to a field that is not only challenging, but also an intelligent career choice for the long haul.

Programs like Texas A&M’s and the Grainger Center’s seem to have faced their struggles in earlier decades, but have a positive outlook for the future. “It was a struggle in the 1970s,” Dr. Lawrence says, but now they have no issues in proving the value of a program like theirs. The reputation they have built over the last five decades is a major factor, but Blythe adds that a more global awareness has really helped the Grainger Center in their pursuits in the program. Twenty-years ago, our culture didn’t have a vocabulary at large to discuss the emerging trends that globalization foisted upon us, and the world moved at a less rapid pace; companies had a little room for trial and error. Now, because of the global nature of the supply chain itself, companies must be proactive and flexible to deal with the minute-by-minute demands of the process, and forecasting and planning is essential.

Then again, these two programs are still more aligned with the traditional model of education in the university system and have a more readily accessible audience for their programs. They are still focused toward the four-year and four-year-plus degree earners, not someone who might be more trade school oriented — someone who could benefit from a program like ICP.

Constant Engagement

Mary Jawgiel is the ICP Program Director for the PTDA Foundation. She herself is new to the industry, just stepping into her position in January of this year. She says that the goals of the program are really to both reach potential employers about the need to be proactive in harvesting a workforce for the future, and a need to partner with others in the industry to raise up the next generation of educated distribution individuals before the current generation retires along with their industry expertise. As a fresh face in the industry, she encourages young people who are potentially interested in the field to not hesitate to investigate the possibility, saying that not only is distribution a great career choice because of the financial benefits and job stability, but because the other people working in this industry are so different from other professional fields. She notes that her experiences with people in the industry have been wholly positive and indicative of the real and honest people that are driving this industry forward.

As ICP continues to expand their program, they plan to target their focus group even more. This year, they are planning extensive updates to the website, hoping to incorporate social media to connect with potential employees and those in positions of influence: teachers, parents, and employers. Also in 2012 is a plan to add a Job Board, where distributors will be able to post job openings and qualifications to reach out directly to the 18-34 year old segment through these same outlets.

Efforts to raise awareness through the website and the Ambassadors program will continue, and ICP will reevaluate its successes and failures as it continues on this journey. As Savage notes, “There is no silver bullet in getting the word out there about ICP.” He also points out that this initiative is not a moment in distribution’s history, but will need to be a continual process as the years progress. “Our industry needs a steady stream of creative people with fresh ideas, and cannot get them with an easy fix.”

In the next five years, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that there will be 140,000 positions that will need to be filled in the distribution sector. ICP is doing all it can to make sure that there are the right people for the jobs as they become available.

For more information or to find out how you can help, visit www.industrialcareerspathway.org or call 1-312-516-2100.

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