It’s no secret that lumber and building materials dealers have been facing a labor shortage. The problem isn’t limited to one area; it’s widespread, and it’s complicated. ProSales recently delved into the issue in an April cover story.
With older workers retiring, dealers will need to figure out how to recruit the next generation. Many have struggled to figure out the best strategy to interest young people in LBM. Millennials have been particularly hard to capture, in part because many grew up either not knowing that LBM exists or with false perceptions of the industry. Technology has been a large part of their daily lives, which means more time spent in front of a screen and little (if any) time working with their hands.
Ben Gann, vice president of legislative and political affairs at the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA), says how to engage young people has been a topic of conversation at NLBMDA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. He believes there is a lot about LBM that can appeal to millennials, but those in the industry need to reach out to them. This younger generation wants to feel a sense of community and pride in their work. They also want work-life balance.
“I think there’s a fairly compelling story to tell with the [LBM] industry,” Gann says. “This is an industry that helps build communities. Sometimes we view it as we just sell lumber and drywall, but that is used to build things. Part of it is language and how we talk about the industry.”
Two Texas dealers have taken that to heart and created educational programs designed to familiarize young people with LBM and the trades.
Skilled Trade Explorer Program
San Antonio-based Allen & Allen Co. has developed a multi-step educational program that starts with students at age 10 and extends to high school for those who show promise and interest. The firm wants to give students hands-on experience and show them what a career in construction is really like.
Mike McGinnis, controller, director of purchasing and inventory control at Allen & Allen, says, “A lot of people want to talk about how bad the problem is and don’t want to solve it.”
Step one, according to the company, is called the Skilled Trade Explorer Program. It’s based on five areas of emphasis: career opportunities, life skills, citizenship, character education, and leadership experience. The program helps kids explore and discover interests in the construction and skilled labor industries.
For the next step, Allen & Allen partners with the Texas Construction Career Initiative and the Pre-employment Architectural and Construction Exploration (P.A.C.E.) program. Both allow students to gain comprehensive knowledge and insight into the industry. P.A.C.E. even offers a free 10-hour OSHA safety course.
The final step is to offer scholarship opportunities for trade school or associate degrees. “We have noticed that there are many construction-related scholarships out there, but most are for bachelor degrees, not associate degrees or trade schools,” explains McGinnis. “We have partnered not only with a local community college that has associate degree programs in the construction industry, but with trade schools as well. In 2015, we gave away our first scholarships and will continue to do so every year.”
About 50% of students who completed the program in high school are working in or studying the industry, McGinnis says.
What Can a Tree Be?
Zarsky Lumber, based in Victoria, Texas, partnered with the South Texas division manager of Steve Klein Custom Builder and with Mike Pollok, general manager of Weyerhaeuser’s Houston facility, to invest in the LBM industry’s future by creating an introductory educational program for elementary students, says Cally Coleman Fromme, vice president of business development at Zarsky Lumber.
“Educational goals [for the program] include providing information about our industry as a career path, removing negative stigmas about forestry and the environment, giving examples of everyday products that come from trees, and simply being a good neighbor,” Fromme says.
The initiative, called What Can a Tree Be?, took place at Ella Schorlemmer Elementary in Victoria on the students’ last day of school in 2015. Children were given the opportunity to see what products are made from trees and learn about sustainability. Staff from the three participating firms spoke about their jobs and answered questions at two assemblies—one for pre-K to second graders and another for third to fifth graders.
“The students had plenty of items to see, touch, and feel. All of these household items were very familiar to them, but they had no idea of their origin,” says Fromme. “Weyerhaeuser representatives provided good information about forest sustainability both verbally and in the handouts that the teachers reviewed with the students prior to our visit. The kids were able to understand that it would not make sense for an industry that is totally dependent upon the future of the forests to behave in any manner other than one of responsibility, cultivation, and care.”
With this introduction, Zarsky Lumber, Steve Klein Custom Builder, and Weyerhaeuser hope to start a conversation with kids about the possibility of exploring a career in the LBM industry.
Since the program is in its early stages—this was the first class—it’s hard to measure progress. But according to Fromme, a teacher at Schorlemmer said, “‘The tree program was a huge hit at our elementary school. It was a great opportunity for the students to learn and understand the important role that trees play in the world around them.’”
Fromme and her partners are optimistic for what the future holds. “We have plans to do more and do better,” she says.
Tips for Building Your Strategy
If you don’t have a recruiting program in place, Gann suggests partnering with community colleges to give internships. He also emphasizes the importance of having a relationship with your community so that young people can become familiar with a lumberyard, particularly in smaller communities.
When deciding how your business will attract young people, it’s also important to know what kind of candidates you’re looking for, and how they’ll grow with the company in the long term.
“This industry isn’t one-size-fits-all. People have to find what works for their business and their community,” Gann explains. “Think about what kind of people and talent you want to attract before launching an initiative."