Alot of dumb people work at lumberyards, and they're getting dumber every day.

Craig Webb Photo: James Kegley That's the crude version, anyway, of what I'm hearing on the road. Salesmen never were taught how to make sales presentations. Executives haven't learned how to pull potentially vital data out of accounting systems. Yard workers lack core skills they need to advance to supervisory jobs and office positions.

That lumberyards succeed in such conditions is a credit to the vast majority of workers at LBM operations who can do their jobs. Still, the situation at some lumberyards is like driving a car with a faulty spark plug; you'll still move forward, but not as smoothly or efficiently as you'd like. To make matters worse, the uphill climb created by the housing market is, because of other reasons, likely to get even steeper.

Even after the market recovers, I see three potentially crippling skills-related challenges facing lumberyards:

  • Dealers tell me that LBM's lack of glamour, combined with the low pay and hard toil inherent in this commodity-based business, means top-grade, college-minded youths are ignoring lumberyards, forcing dealers to draw from undesirable worker pools. Many of these youngsters are lucky to have a high school diploma and are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, dealers complain. Oregon's Roseburg Forest Products says half of its applicants fail to pass the company's drug test.
  • The workers' skill set doesn't match the yard's needs. Big C Lumber in Granger, Ind., has seen a number of would-be installers walk out when they come to the part of the job application that asks basic math questions. Meanwhile, in some executive offices, managers have reached, at best, a grudging compromise with their computers. And sales people who were whizzes at processing orders during the go-go days either are rusty or lacking entirely in the skills required to generate sales.
  • To continue their longtime role of explaining to builders how to build, dealers have to learn about green construction– fast. The trouble is, learning green principles takes time. You don't just have to know the products and techniques needed to construct a home. Now you also must take a bewildering array of other factors into account, from reducing waste to saving the ozone layer to protecting Amazonian tribes. And, oh yes, both you and the builder still have to turn a profit.

But even if green building hadn't come along, LBM execs clearly were facing the need for continuing education. Lumberyards often are mini-conglomerates in which managing the parts–be they lumber sales, installation work, land management, or construction finance–require ever more diverse, sophisticated management skills. We help hone those skills this month with our examination of the ProSales 100 list of LBM dealers (page 48), a profile of chief financial officers (page 70), and our look at benchmarking (page 28).

I haven't met more than a handful of managers at yards of any size who struck me as having minds closed to new ideas. Good entrepreneurs rarely do. But I would bet that just about all yards have folks who only get excited on payday, or who haven't grown in the business for years, or who haven't learned how to perform a task that has become vital to your yard's success.

Now that I think about it, many of the best dealers in America that I've seen take advantage of teachable moments. I saw Don Magruder, general manager of Ro-Mac Lumber & Supply Inc. in Leesburg, Fla., do that one day when he grilled one of the owner's sons about what he learned from a recent mill tour. Magruder asked tough questions, but his young charge came through. It's likely that knowledge will help that worker one day when he's in charge.

Keep vignettes like this one with Magruder in mind as you read about graduation events in your towns. Those youngsters have achieved something special, but it's only the start of their learning. There's a reason those ceremonies are called commencements.

Compiling the ProSales 100 is an educational experience in itself, for its gives all of us the most complete, most accurate report of the state of our industry. Senior editor Andy Carlo and managing editor Evamarie Socha spent long hours this spring collecting, cajoling, and compiling the data for this report. What they've learned is invaluable.