Real Issues. Real Answers. Aging out

Nearly 60% of respondents to this month's Real Issues. survey said they have trouble attracting younger workers to their companies.
Nearly 60% of respondents to this month’s Real Issues. survey said they have trouble attracting younger workers to their companies.

What’s a dealer to do when several key, long-term associates are nearing retirement, and young pros aren’t exactly lined up to take their place? That challenge, suggested by two readers for our most recent survey, has no easy answers. In fact, judging from the results of our monthly Real Issues surveys, attracting, hiring and retaining young pros is one of the toughest issues facing our industry today. While frustration is evident in several answers— “Sell the business before it’s too late,” and “Lower your standards and quit drug testing”—many others shared practical insights that can help you face this challenge head-on.

In one form or another, the problem of attracting, hiring and retaining young pros is consistently the most commonly shared challenge to our Real Issues surveys. For this month’s Real Issues feature, we combined what two readers shared—difficulties attracting and hiring young people with the problem of experienced team members retiring. Both readers who submitted this challenge will receive LBM Journal Prize Packs (polo shirt, mug, cap, pen and more).

Here’s their combined question, which effectively reflects a very real issue facing dealers from across the U.S. “Great people in positions throughout our company are aging out and retiring or leaving the industry. This includes people in sales, warehouse, operations, and more. We’re having problems recruiting new talent into our workforce—especially those in their 20s and 30s. Our pay and benefits are competitive, and once people come aboard, they tend to stay for years or decades. It’s a good place to work, but still we struggle attracting young talent. What can we do to attract new blood?”

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As we do each month, we built a very brief survey around that question and sent it to the subscribers who’ve  opted in to receive email communications from us. A big thank you to the 200-plus readers who took time to share their insights and experiences. If you’d like to participate in future Real Issues surveys, drop me a note at, and we’ll get you added to our opt-in list.

Question 1
First, we wanted to get a feel for how the age breakout of team members applied to the respondent companies, so we asked: “Approximately what percentage of your workforce falls into the following age ranges?” As the chart shows, the majority of employees at the respondent companies (51%) are between 40 and 60. Among respondents to this survey, the percentage of employees under 30 (14%) is almost identical to the number of employees over 60 (15%).

Question 2
Next, we wanted to gauge how many respondent companies are struggling with this problem, so we asked, “In general, does your company struggle to attract younger workers?” While exactly 1/3 of respondents said no, nearly six out of 10 (58%) said yes. This confirms the anecdotal evidence that most LBM dealers are having a tough time attracting younger workers.

Question 3
“Great people in positions throughout our company are aging out and retiring or leaving the industry. This includes people in sales, warehouse, operations, and more. We’re having problems recruiting new talent into our workforce—especially those in their 20s and 30s. Our pay and benefits are competitive, and once people come aboard, they tend to stay for years  or decades. It’s a good place to work, but still we struggle attracting young talent. What can we do to attract new blood?”

Readers Responses:
“We recruit graduating college and community college students for our intern program as well as our Manager in Training program. We have had great success with this. Five of our nine managers are under 30.”

“Offer existing employees financial incentives for recommending friends who may want to work for the company. Participate in local job fairs.”

“Advertise with social media, also advertise for help within your market.”

“Start looking in the high schools, especially shop class.”

“Recruit from local community college construction management programs. Also, major universities, however those graduates are often more prepared for a superintendent position with commercial builders. Promote the opportunities for growth within your company and the benefits you provide. Make them understand they’ll be entering into one of the largest industries in the world.”

“1. You have to advertise your business. It seems like a no-brainer, but you have to go to the talent, not wait for the talent to come to you.
2.   Always be on the lookout. If you are out to eat on the weekend and have a great, hardworking, personable waiter, extend a business card and ask if they might be interested in a career and set up a meeting.
3.    No one’s going to like this but…raise the starting wage/salary/benefits package. Everyone works to make a living. The unemployment rate is low, and it’s competitive to find top talent. If you are in the top 20% in the industry in compensation, you should be able to attract the top 20% of talent. Same goes for the bottom 20% in compensation.”

“Work the family and friends network. For sales and management, look to local colleges and universities and their career planning departments. Another good source to look into is vocational training centers.”

“We rely on referrals from our employees. Our employees are happy and engaged, so they make some of the best talent scouts.”

“How’s your brand message? And your facilities? Is your company inviting for younger people to consider working there? Can they see themselves working in your company? Do you tell a compelling story of how they can have a career with you? We always remind ourselves that nobody dreams of working in a lumberyard unless it’s their family’s business. You need to reach out, recruit and tell a compelling story of how this can be a rewarding place to be.”

“Give them incentives to come aboard. Health insurance, 401k, longer vacation packages, bonuses, and family time, especially with small children. Be flexible and committed.”

“You need to offer more perks, commission, etc. Stress the teamwork attitude. Younger workers are interested in flexibility also. Maybe look at doing a four-day work week or working off-hours instead of a rigid schedule.”

“You have to make a value proposition to potential hires. This industry gets a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so, for being very conservative, not tech-savvy, with limited advancement opportunities, especially at small companies, and working conditions that are not appealing to all types. This is, however, an industry where you can make a very good living if you are ambitious, willing to learn, and have a solid work ethic and healthy set of values.
“You don’t necessarily need to have a college degree in order to secure advancement. You need to attend the same types of functions that the trades are attending to recruit staff. You need to develop relationships with high school guidance counselors and building trades teachers. There are young people who enjoy aspects of the building trades, but may find it more rewarding to work on the supply side of the equation.”

“Reach out to local vocational schools to help discover strong entry-level candidates. Another strong strategy is to identify good workers in customer- service jobs in other industries and recruit them.”

“Groom people within the organization, look for strengths in people, not weaknesses. There is always someone wanting more in their life. Often, it’s those people who represent the future for our companies.”

“Create an appealing place to work. People need to be proud that they work for you. Instead of five-day work weeks, consider four ten-hour days, to give them three-day weekends.”

“You need to hire young people capable of moving up the ladder and promote them as soon as possible. Have them interview the new applicants, to include them in the process. If young people see the potential in your company, one that doesn’t mean they have to reach 50- or 60-years old to get ahead, they will want to join. Ask yourself how a young person would view your company. Keep recruiting. Look outside the industry. There are plenty of young people looking for a good opportunity.”

“Partner with a local college or university and try to recruit people.”

“Most young people live and breathe technology, so it’s important that you have up-to-date technology tools. If a twenty-something comes to your offices and sees green screen computer terminals, the odds of bringing them on board just went way down. You need to be technologically advanced in your business, and it’s helpful to be all over social media.”

“I encourage everyone in this industry to read the piece by Rick Davis called: ‘Construction Supply: The Opportunity Industry’. [p. 44, February 2019 LBM Journal]. It has great information to sell our business to young people. If you were to use it at a high school or community college job fair, I think you could turn heads. I would give a copy to prospective employees to read over and think about. A sharp, ambitious, hardworking individual has limitless opportunities in this industry. We have many examples here at our company, myself included.”

“We keep trying to recruit entry level positions from that 18-25 range. When we get a good one, we actively empower him to make good decisions and train him to be more valuable. Most of our employees like training that makes them feel more valuable. We also actively try to hire early retirees in the lumberyard. They tend to be reliable and, given the right material handling tools, they can do the work.”

“Increase your presence on social networking sites that are visited more often by younger individuals. Target local high schools and trade schools. Leverage an internal employee referral program.”

“Try to create a fun and passionate atmosphere.”

“Reach out to community and four-year colleges and sell the benefits of your business. We’re in a noble profession, providing housing and shelter to our fellow citizens.”

“We use a contract labor/head hunter agency. This has worked well for us.”

“Maybe try college recruiting or tech school recruiting, and place job ads online (Indeed, Monster).”

“Time-off is a deal-breaker for a lot of this generation. Our company believes they offer a decent program, but compared to many other companies, the amount of time-off we provide just isn’t competitive.”

“Reach out to different recruiting platforms, community colleges, offer recruiting bonuses.”

“Try everything. Job fairs at high schools, colleges, unemployment offices, etc. Craigslist, social media, etc. Once you do attract a prospect, train them. Involve them. Make them feel like an important part of your  team.”

“Start with internships and offer additional programs for continuing education. Be seen in the community— in all types of events, charitable and otherwise, to raise your brand’s profile. Show applicants a future, a career path— not just a temporary stop.”

“Million-dollar question.” “Younger employees value flexible schedules and time-off almost as much as compensation. They also need to feel like they can make a difference. Consider how your culture supports these needs.”

“I have a great connection with one of my employees who is a high school wrestling coach. Most of my summer help comes through that. I also work with other teachers in the area to find good kids. I would suggest contacting local tech schools.”

“Use temporary labor companies like People Ready for on-the-spot auditions when it comes to general labor. If it’s clerical work/keeping track of calls, dates, etc., outsource to virtual assistants. Find a software that allows your customers to interact and build their own orders and automate things more because there is no one out there that wants to work. That’s just the way it is now. Everyone needs to quit crying about it and stop trying to attract anyone because they do not exist.”

“Don’t know, looking for answers. It’s tough getting younger people who want to do physical labor.”

“We are very diligent in our search for smart, personable people. Age does have its boundaries, and limitations at both ends of the spectrum, but a keen interest for the industry is what we first look for.”

Social media works well for us. Employees started sending out the word on Facebook and word gets out there. When the word about openings comes from employees, it has more credibility because people are more apt to believe an employee that it is a good place to work.”

“Understanding that the new generation of workers have different priorities than the previous generations.”

“No idea. The problem I notice is that the entry level positions aren’t the ‘glamorous’ jobs. It takes a lot of time and hard work to get to that point and most leave first. Promote when promoting is due. Don’t leave someone deserving of a promotion in a lesser position because they are good at their current job. Give them the opportunity they’ve earned.”

“Sell the business before its too late.”

“Build a timeline with your older leaders of projected retirement, then begin using your own team to help recruit early—well before that projected retirement. Consider a signing bonus for current employees who recruit someone new. Look at your customer base as a place to recruit from as well. Often, the people working in the field have no benefits and no regular hours. This could be a great place to find new employees.”

“Utilize the senior members of your staff to acquire talented younger members and then have them mentor them with free reign to pass on their successful traits and processes.”

“Engage your current employees and customers.”

“High school high-achievers who don’t want to go to college.”

“1. You will have to adapt. Learn what they’re looking for in perks, benefits, career paths, etc. Start thinking about what you might have to change.
2. If you are not already, start using social media at work. Today’s work force is online daily. Do you want to reach them? Get out there.
3. The days of baby-boomers chiding millennials is gone. If you don’t change, you and your operation will be left behind. All aging yards should really look at their approach to the younger workforce. They’re interested in careers that do not require exorbitant student loans. Maybe the perks they’re asking for aren’t that far-fetched. Maybe the short- cuts they take aren’t ‘lazy’ but ‘working smarter, not harder.’”

“We keep postings up all the time on multiple job boards. We also keep our Facebook page and website up-to-date and fresh.”

“For starters, take a look at job descriptions, job functions, job titles. Which positions are flexible hours-wise, where people could work from home. Punching a clock at the place of business (think rat race) is something many of the next generation of workers don’t like. Secondly, go to college job fairs, talk to a diverse cross section of 20-somethings. Find out what they’re looking for and adjust your job descriptions appropriately, if possible.”

“Job fairs have proven to be a great way to connect face-to-face with people looking for a job. We’ve found several good young people who we’ve had conversations with at job fairs who had no interest or experience in working at a lumberyard. But once they talked with us—and we always try to have a young member at our team with us as well— they learn that it can actually be a great job that can turn into a great career.”

“Ask your employees if they know anybody that would be a good fit. Offer your employees a bonus if their suggested recruits join your company.”

“Lower your standards and quit drug testing.”

“Our best source for new employees is using referrals from our current employees. Asking customers and their families has also been useful.”

“Building supply is not viewed as a ‘sexy industry’ to work in, because people think that it relies on lots of old school thought and tech. It also requires physical labor. We need to break that mold and redefine how people view our industry in order to attract talent. This is especially frustrating for those of us who just love being part of this industry. Maybe communicating your love and passion for the industry will help?”

“It’s important to get in the schools and engage the students.”

“Recruit local trade/tech schools and universities with construction management/forestry. Keep your eyes open at the local supermarket, landscaping companies, big box stores etc. We once recruited one of our best from the local gas station. Have the rest of the staff recruit also, offer a cash bonus for a successful hire. I don’t think we are alone, other industries suffer also.”

“Do not lower your standards, just keep looking.”

Hundreds of readers share their insights for this every-issue feature. Have a Real Issue? Contact

The readers who suggested this Real Issues topic will receive an LBM Journal prize pack including a polo shirt, cap, mug, pen, and more.

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