Distribution Leaders: Preparing the Next Generation

The warehouse experience offers employees a path for career advancement in distribution as well as other departments.

One bright sign amidst everything else going on is that warehouse employment has actually surpassed its pre-pandemic highs. I think we can all agree that 2020 was unlike any year that we’ve experienced in our lives. As we try to anticipate what the rest of 2021 might hold, vaccine distribution is gaining momentum while the U.S. economy is exhibiting tepid signs of overall recovery.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of December 2020, there are now more than 1.33 million people employed in the warehousing and storage sector. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that e-commerce sales increased by more than 32% last year, fueled by stay-at-home orders and more people shopping online than ever before. Hiring is expected to remain fast and furious in the sector this year, with job search site Monster.com predicting continued strong growth for supply chain, warehouse and logistics roles. Finding and retaining top talent will remain incredibly difficult.

Embracing a Changing Workforce

Amidst all this change and uncertainty, distributors must also find ways to connect with Gen Z and Millennials and remain mindful of training, retraining and engaging these younger workers. I was curious to hear what distributors are doing in order to train and retain their warehouse talent. I spoke with Roy Bragg, vice president of operations at E.B. Horsman & Son, to learn about the creative ways they are providing paths for career advancement in the warehouse.

Led by president and CEO Tim Horsman, the fifth generation involved in the company, E.B. Horsman is one of the largest independent electrical suppliers/distributors and wholesalers in Western Canada. The company’s distribution model consists of a centralized home office and distribution center in addition to 20 branch locations. Today, E.B. Horsman employs more than 320 workers and its warehouse employees gain valuable experience that prepares them for other roles within the company. Bragg explained to me how distributors can support advancement opportunities for warehouse workers, shared examples of successful career transitions within his company, and provided tips for identifying candidates primed for career growth.

Seeing the Holistic Nature of the Business

According to Bragg, the key to providing advancement opportunities for warehouse workers is to have clearly defined job requirements and a well-defined training path that supports growth opportunities. At E.B. Horsman, the human resources department has created a job requirement path for its employees. The company has put practices in place that provide prospective managers with training opportunities and exposure to the administrative side of the warehouse functions, such as inventory control.

The knowledge gained on the warehouse floor—specifically operations and distribution knowledge—helps them navigate sales and customer expectations. In addition, E.B. Horsman leads brainstorming sessions with all staff on a regular basis to review and discuss all warehouse-based activities. These sessions expose employees to all departments across the business as they collectively work through the impacts their decisions have in those areas.

Careers Can Move up with Technology

Though it might be surprising to many, sales and purchasing are the two main areas where E.B. Horsman has seen staff advance beyond the warehouse. Bragg notes that approximately 20 of the company’s office administrative and managerial employees started in the warehouse. For example, E.B. Horsman’s top salesperson for the last 10 years and the company’s vice president of purchasing and inventory both started in the warehouse.

While perhaps specific to electrical distributors like E.B. Horsman, new career opportunities are being created through value-add services whereby electrical technicians are required. In response to this need, warehouse workers at the company can take a two-year course in order to move into these roles. Bragg expects that warehouse automation will further drive the creation of similar positions in the future. Distributors would be wise to consider their own value-add opportunities and anticipate future needs for similar advancement tracks within the business.

Maintaining Business Culture

When it comes to identifying potential candidates for advancement opportunities, this is something that E.B. Horsman explores as early as during the initial hiring process. Bragg says these hiring decisions are primarily culture based, sharing that while they certainly like to see technically savvy prospects, his company really focuses on a prospective employee’s fit with their business culture.

At the branch level, for instance, the expectation is that warehouse employees will advance to counter sales. As such, their hiring expectations are rooted in sales advancement. Once on board, employees have a chance to learn the operations side and then move into sales or branch management positions such as customer service managers, district managers, and so on. While expectations are, naturally, a bit different in the distribution center, Bragg says these same advancement avenues are still offered to employees.

Distribution Knowledge is Power

With more people working in the warehousing and storage sector than ever before, particularly younger workers looking for career growth opportunities, now is the time for distributors to get serious about training—and retaining—their warehouse talent. The skills, knowledge and experience your employees gain in the warehouse are directly applicable to administrative, operational and managerial functions across the business.

As Bragg states, “The warehouse experience not only gives those employees a path for career advancement but also helps with their entry into sales, purchasing and other areas.” The opportunity is clear. What do distributors have to lose by exploring ways you can support career advancement and identifying potential candidates while recruiting for warehouse roles? Keeping your best and brightest employees learning and advancing, regardless of their role in the organization, strikes me as a no-brainer.

This article first appeared in Material Handling & Logistics on March 25, 2021.