Yards Shy of Complete

The lumber and building material industry continues to lag U.S. employers overall in terms of labor diversity, but some dealers are taking steps to recruit from a more diverse labor pool and thus narrow the gap.

According to 2006 estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see "Yards Shy of Complete," page 22), lumber dealers' and construction wholesalers' employment of Hispanics resembles the share of Hispanics in the total workforce, but dealers employ less than two-thirds as many African-Americans and one-third as many Asians. And it's still relatively rare to see minorities of any type in management and executive positions.

"It's a continuation of what has always happened in the past: businesses in this industry are doing what they are accustomed to," says Mina DeShazo, senior vice president of human resources for The Wolf Organization, York, Pa.

Wolf wasn't satisfied with the status quo. In 2005, The Wolf Organization launched a five-year program aimed at building a more diverse workforce through detailed diversity recruitment. Wolf has more than 600 employees and is the parent company of Wolf Distribution, which handles building material distribution throughout the East Coast, and The Lumber Yard, a pro dealer with 18 mid-Atlantic locations.

As part of the program, The Wolf Organization has embraced a number of recruiting approaches, most notably the use of online services such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, partnerships with the local Spanish American Center and YWCA in York, and job fair visits to regional colleges. Since the program's inception, the percentage of minority employees, including African-Americans and Hispanics in administration and management roles, has grown from 2.53% in 2004 to 3.37% in 2005 to nearly 6% in 2006. While getting to 6% might not be a staggering achievement, it does demonstrate Wolf is on an upward path. DeShazo, an African-American woman, has helped map the road for Wolf. She was tapped for the job after demonstrating a track record of success outside the industry, managing large human resource departments in government, health care, and private-sector industries, the company told ProSales.

"Because the world is changing, some companies are starting to realize that it makes good business sense to change how they recruit and to hire from a diverse slate," DeShazo says.

In instances where diversity has been rare, particularly in middle management, the result has been a disconnect both linguistically and culturally between yard employees and company management, according to Cindy Hartley, director of member relations for the Southern Building Material Association, Charlotte, N.C. Last year, Hartley began delivering diversity workshops at association conferences. The classes focused on better understanding some of the cultural differences between the ever-increasing flow of Hispanic employees, including contractors. (It didn't address any other minority groups.)

"Changes are starting to happen, but it is going to take time," Hartley says. "It took a long time to get women into higher positions."

Jim Biley, an African-American branch manager for two-unit Montalbano Lumber in Houston, is an 11-year company veteran who watched his market change with the times–including an influx of more Hispanic customers. "It's part of an evolving process that we are going through. If we don't meet the needs of our clientele, then we won't succeed," Biley says. Changes mean tailoring Montalbano Lumber's business to being more conducive to the Spanish-speaking part of the market and hiring Spanish-speaking employees. But Biley does not have an answer as to why more African-Americans are not rising to higher management and executive positions.

An exception to the rule, like Biley, is Karnell Steele, who began his career as a "grunt man" in a door shop for OrePac Building Products, a Wilsonville, Ore.?based wholesale building products distributor with 11 locations in the West.

Steele does not mince words when giving his reason for joining OrePac: He needed a job, and he pointed to the LBM industry as a job market that won't go away because "people are always building and remodeling."

His door shop training was essential, Steele explains, because that is where he got his feet wet and learned the basics of the industry. After nine years with the company and after serving in numerous capacities, including data entry work, door scheduler, and assistant door shop manager, Steele is now an inside salesman. "This company likes to hire from within," he says. "You might start at the grunt position, but if you have the skills, they move you forward to shop leader positions or into the office itself."

"What it really comes down to are persons willing to work hard enough and have the chops for the job," Biley adds. "As my grandmother would say, the cream will rise to the top."

–Andy Carlo