Attracting new talent is a common problem not only for distributors in the electrical market but also for distributors in the dozens of other niches within the $5.3 trillion U.S. wholesale-distribution industry.
Even though the wholesale trade employs more than 6 million people and accounts for 5.9% of total U.S. Gross Domestic Product, according to data from the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors and the U.S. government, not many people know the distribution industry exists or that it provides solid career opportunities at thousands of local businesses across the nation.
To help get the word out on the employment opportunities that Stanion Wholesale Electric Co., Pratt, KS, provides at its 17 locations in Kansas and the Kansas City metropolitan area, the company is sponsoring and has made a financial investment in the new Modern Distribution Sales & Management program that Pratt Community College, Pratt, KS, launched last year.
During his decades with the business, Bill Keller, the company’s president, said finding qualified new talent has always been a challenge because few people know much about the industry. He likes to tell a story about representing his company at a job fair organized by the local Rotary Club and realizing that he and the local mortician were attracting the fewest attendees to their tables. “People don’t even really know the wholesale industry exists,” he says. “Or if they think they know, they may think we are the unnecessary middleman between the retailer and the manufacturer.”
To help clear up this misperception and to develop a source of new talent for the company, Keller and his executive team are working closely with Jenny Egging, coordinator for the Modern Distribution Sales & Management program at Pratt Community College. Along with being guest speakers on various distribution topics, Keller and other Stanion executives also hire students for paid internships with the company, help the students polish their job hunting skills in mock interviews, and recruit independent reps and other area electrical professionals to talk with students during classes about various distribution topics.
Egging was a mechanical engineer with construction project management experience before coming to Pratt Community College last year to lead the program. One of her first tasks was to add to the advisory board and build the curriculum for the Modern Distribution Sales & Management (MDSM) program. It has a solid roster of electrical and distribution industry sponsors to help ensure the program’s curriculum provides the necessary content for students interested in pursuing a career in distribution. Along with Stanion these companies include Anixter Inc.; Consolidated Electrical Distributors (CED); C&O Electric Sales, a Kansas City-metro-based independent electrical rep; GT Midwest, a Wichita-based industrial distributor; Hajoca, a distributor of plumbing, HVAC and industrial supplies with a Wichita branch; William F. Hurst Co., an industrial distributor with local branches in Wichita and Shawnee, KS (Kansas City metro); Neenan Co., a Wichita-based plumbing distributor; and C&B Equipment Inc., Wichita, an industrial equipment supplier.
Other companies that have provided guest speakers or have hosted students on field trips include Mize & Co., Inc., Kingman, KS; Massco Maintenance Supply Co., Inc., Park City, KS; Cross Manufacturing Inc., Pratt; Home Lumber & Supply, Pratt; HEBCO, Inc., Independence, MO; Tour de Force, Findlay, OH, a provider of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software; KanEquip Inc., Wamego, KS; and two universities that offer Industrial Distribution (ID) programs — Texas A&M University, the largest ID program in the U.S., and the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Texas A&M has also provided classroom materials and guidance for the course curriculum.
Egging says students have the option to earn a one-year certificate in MDSM or the more in-depth Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in MDSM. Students will also be able to transfer from Pratt Community College program to universities that offer a four-year degree in industrial distribution, but Keller and Egging say the program’s main goal is to prepare students for distributors’ internal sales and management training programs, and that a four-year degree isn’t typically required for that.
Some classes are provided via distance learning, where guest speakers teach students remotely using Zoom’s video webinar technology. Egging says high school students can try out the program by taking classes remotely tuition free, because of the Kansas Senate Bill 155 that waives tuition and fees for high school students taking college courses.
She expects the online classes to be popular with non-traditional students who work for a few years and go back to school to improve their skills and marketability for a job in the distribution industry. Other students who tend to do well in the program are those with some entrepreneurial instincts. They may have run something like small lawnmowing business and understand some of the basics of costs and profits and the importance of doing quality work.
The MDSM program’s core distribution classes include:
• Introduction to Industrial Distribution
• Industrial Branch Operations
• Principles of Sales & Marketing
• Manufacturer Distributor Relations
• Materials Management & Procurement
• Industrial Leadership & Management
• Enterprise Resource Planning & Data Driven Decisions
The Pratt Community College (PCC) press release announcing the launch of the program last fall said, “PCC’s MDSM associate program is a combination of supply chain logistics, sales, information systems, finance, marketing and procurement. MDSM professionals are hands-on workers who primarily operate as the sales and marketing arm for manufacturers of industrial products. Course offerings provide students with professional, technical, business, communication and leadership competencies.
“It’s the goal of the institution and program to help students in the MDSM program gain hands-on experience with local businesses as well as offer them meaningful exposure to potential job opportunities within the county and state. The new curriculum will include real-world exposure to the industry by visiting companies on-site and participating in internships with program industry partners such as Stanion Wholesale Electric.”
A big part of the Pratt CC program is the paid internship, which will be 10-12 weeks, depending on scheduling with the student and the company. Students at the college come from not only Pratt County and western Kansas, but from all over the United States, and some out-of-state students have been doing internships closer to their homes.
Says Egging, “The internship is after the first year into the program. The students receive three credit hours for it, technically, one credit hour for every 45 work hours, but working the entire 10-12 weeks is expected. There will be ‘check ins’ with me and supervision by the employer to ensure their progress.”
Stanion Wholesale Electric offers the internships through its Wichita branch because it’s a bigger operation than the Pratt headquarters location and will give the students broader exposure to the inner workings of the company and to its management training program.
The program also teaches students about basic business philosophy. Keller has found that some incoming students don’t have a grasp of the basics of why a company needs to make a profit to survive and grow, and he teaches students about free market capitalism. He has been surprised to find out some students come to the program with some wildly inaccurate ideas of how much profit a company like Stanion makes on an order, and that some students question the need for companies to make a profit at all.
The program also covers the importance of building sound win-win business relationships, and why it’s important for both parties in any sale or negotiation to come out of it feeling like they got what they needed out of the transaction. Instructors also focus on pricing strategies and the role price plays in a customers’ buying decisions. Says Keller,
“They have to know that price isn’t the only consideration and that oftentimes it’s not the most important consideration. I ask them, ‘How many of you are wearing the least expensive pair of shoes? And if I go out into the parking lot, will I only see a bunch of used Yugos?’ It isn’t always about the cheapest price. People buy for a lot of reasons, including service, quality and relationships.”
Keller says another point of emphasis is the importance of repeat business for distributors. “One of the basic differences between what we do and what a retailer does is repeat business. We don’t sell to everyone, and we have to make them happy so they will come back. In contrast, a retailer is happy with a one-time sale to someone. That is not how we operate. We have to have a continuing relationship.”
Egging says the college’s ultimate goal for the program, which launched in Sept. 2018, is to have 50 students by 2021. If the program grows as large as Egging and Keller hope, it will have gone a long way to accomplishing their goal of getting the word out about the careers in the distribution business and providing companies in their region with a new source of well-trained talent.
“It’s a big part of the world’s economy that no one knows anything about,” says Keller. “If you went to any high school and started talking with students about careers, some might say they wanted to be doctor or a lawyer or a fireman or a dentist, Or, maybe they would say they want to go in the military or go into retail. But you won’t hear anyone say they want to go into wholesale distribution. We have got to make sure that people know it exists and that it is a great place to make a career.”