The hunt is on. Across the country, building material suppliers are searching for workers to meet current and expected surges in business. But the trouble is that the old hunting grounds are no longer producing. A half-decade of sales starvation and personnel policies that led to layoffs of the youngest workers—rather than the least talented ones—pushed out many of the people who today would be candidates to become the next generation of middle- and upper-level managers. The talent pool “is shallow and is getting shallower,” says one of the most active executive headhunters, Jim Schaffer of the recruiting firm Schaffer Associates. One of the favorite tactics—poaching workers from other yards, particularly ones that were going out of business—doesn’t work anymore because few facilities are closing these days.

As a result, the help-wanted signs are up; the jobs board on ProSales’ LinkedIn site lists more than 400 vacancies. Dealers are discovering that to get ahead, they’ll have to double down on finding and developing workers. But how?

Our search turned up firms that are finding and nurturing future leaders. They succeed because, first and foremost, they’ve made acquisition and development an integral part of their company, committing money to training as well as finding ways for junior-level employees to build senior-level talents. They also maintain a fresh talent pool by looking outside LBM for their team. These cutting-edge firms understand that tomorrow’s stars need tomorrow’s skills.

You can slice the process of building a 21st-century LBM worker into three parts: Find the person, develop that person, and create a system that keeps the talent pipeline flowing. Here’s how some of the nation’s more forward-thinking dealers do it.

How to Find Good Workers

When Jane Fesler looks at an employee, the CEO of Lampert Yards’ Twin Cities facilities sees two people: that worker today and what that worker could become. She’s a fervent believer in promoting from within but understands that doing so requires a commitment.

“You have to make time for your people, get to know them, and groom them,” she says. “You have to make them a priority, the same way as you make time for your children.” Age is irrelevant, she says: “If they have the desire to learn and to achieve, that’s what I look for. Wanting to learn is key.” That strategy has resulted in her promoting four out of five yard managers into their jobs, among others.

When he was president of Builders, the Kearney, Neb.-based operation that was ProSales’ 2010 Dealer of the Year, Myron Andersen regularly ranked his employees in four categories: A, B, C, and D. The D people were to be fired immediately, while C-level folks got coached. “If they become B people, I’m thrilled,” he says. Meanwhile, some A performers might get rated at B level because they’re in the wrong job. That’s when he blames the company for not maximizing that person’s talents. Advancement from within doesn’t always make sense, however, particularly if the people most likely to advance are children of the owner. “We’ve all promoted people into positions they fail at,” says Andersen. His son likes sales, his daughter enjoys marketing and purchasing for the retail portion of the store, but “it takes a different type of focus and personality to be a CEO,” he says.

Andersen eventually worked through Schaffer Associates to find Chris Borrego to take over. But Borrego didn’t get the job offer until he took eight psychology and personality tests and spent three days meeting one-on-one with team members. Andersen even asked Borrego’s wife to come along to ensure she would support the move to rural central Nebraska.

Alexander Lumber in Aurora, Ill., faced a similar problem. Company president Walter Alexander was 78, and younger members of the family had pursued different career paths. So for the first time in the firm’s 113-year history, it looked outside for a leader and—with the help of headhunter CK Solutions—found one in 61-year-old Newell LaVoy.

When searching below the CEO level, too often dealers try to fill a vacancy by stealing a person who already holds that position somewhere else. “We used to say, ‘Who’s out there? Who’s available?’ And then we’d hire retreads,” recalls Jeff Willis, senior vice president of Roofing Supply Group (RSG), a 58-branch, 1,000-employee specialty dealer based in Dallas. Now, RSG has a vice president of human resources in place to target and potentially promote workers from within the company.

Other dealers have concluded that they should look beyond their competitors’ yards. Lake Chelan Building Supply, in Manson, Wash., has been working with the area’s state agricultural director for several years now to find young people who are smart and want to work but don’t have a desire to go to college. Several get brought in to work at Lake Chelan starting in about their junior year of high school.

Lake Chelan is in the middle of Washington State’s fruit-growing country, and it has a lot of Hispanic immigrants. Two of them have caught on nicely with the company, and general manager Brett LaMar is grooming them for executive roles. “I’m about 45 now,” he says. “When I’m 60, my kids will be out. These two guys will be positioned to be my sales chiefs to run the place.”

Meanwhile, GBS Building Supply has an informal agreement with nearby Clemson University’s construction management program to find prospects.