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Going Beyond Product Knowledge

How to train young talent on your company practices and policies

Whenever a new generation enters the work force, it brings a new set of strengths and weaknesses. As Generation Y, also known as Millennials, individuals born between 1980 and 2000, are hired, what talents and challenges do they bring? The MHEDA Journal surveyed nine distributors around North America to find out how they are recruiting and training young employees in their company. How do companies incorporate these individuals’ strengths and improve their weaknesses? When product training is said and done, how do MHEDA distributors incorporate a new generation with unique skills and values into their company culture? Among the methods that have proven effective are job shadowing and mentoring programs. Following are examples of ways distributors are able to recruit and integrate young talent into their companies and cultures.


Staying on the Cutting Edge

Mike Burskey and Greg O'Dell

Shelving + Rack Systems President Mike Burskey (left) and Installation Supervisor Greg O’Dell review a shipment for a customer.

Change is constant. That is the message that Mike Burskey, president of Shelving + Rack Systems (Walled Lake, MI), stresses to his young employees. “We execute very well, and it is up to us to keep looking for ways to stay on the cutting edge,” says Burskey. “Too many products have gone by the wayside because technology has evolved. As a company, we have to continually look for and identify those opportunities to stay ahead of the curve.”

To stay current, Burskey relies heavily on younger employees who are technologically savvy. Approximately 40 percent of the company’s work force is younger than 30. To train these young employees, Shelving + Rack Systems has used a job shadowing program for the last several years. Each employee spends at least a week with a supervisor in his or her job function. Initially, the new employee observes and asks questions, but as the training progresses, the young employee performs the job function with help from the supervisor.

That shadowing program helps young employees learn the Shelving + Rack culture. “Culture is very important to us,” says Burskey. “We are rebranding our company and our mantra is, ‘We partner with our customers.’ The shadowing program helps our young employees understand who we are and how we serve the customer.”


Delivering Results Through Process

At VBS Inc. Material Handling Equipment (Richmond, VA), much of the training revolves around teaching how each job function contributes to the big-picture goals of the company. “We always preach process before procedure,” says Claud Crosby, president and CEO of VBS. “The difference is that a defined process or system brings the entire team into play. It is easier for the team to execute when everybody understands where they fit and how we go about meeting and succeeding our customers’ expectations.”

To attain that big-picture mindset, every VBS employee goes through a rigorous training program. Employees must complete a job shadowing program for their core job function and also spend a day involved with other facets of the business outside of their job. Part of the VBS training is always being prepared for anything a customer may need. That is why the company spends time covering possible scenarios by role-playing and doing problem-solving exercises. “If there are any questions, we want them out on the table so that we can solve them internally instead of at a customer’s site,” Crosby says.

Another skill that Crosby focuses on is effective communication. He says, “All of our young employees are very comfortable with technology. But that can sometimes be a negative because the language used in emails and texts often doesn’t translate in the business world. We spend a lot of time training our younger employees about the etiquette of business communication.”


Objective-Based Training

Harry Neumann

Harry Neumann, president of Western Storage and Handling, uses 1998 MHEDA President Gary Moore’s book Objective Based Selling to train new employees.

Western Storage and Handling (Englewood, CO) isn’t actively recruiting young employees right now, but it is part of the company’s strategic plan going forward. Harry Neumann, president, sees Millennials as having a strong grasp on technology, which will be an asset as end-users continue to get younger. However, he also sees deficiencies in young employees’ person-to-person conversation skills and time management.

As the company begins to hire young employees, Neumann hopes to address those areas in great detail by using a multi-pronged approach to training. For instance, every new employee is enrolled in a Franklin Covey time management class. All new trainees are also given a copy of 1998 MHEDA President Gary Moore’s book Objective Based Selling. Neumann, who worked for Moore at Materials Handling Equipment Company, read that book as part of his own training. “We have found it to be a very effective training tool,” says Neumann. “During new employees’ two-week training, we read and review each chapter in detail and have lively discussions about them. It’s a great way for young people to learn the industry.”


Treat People How You Want to be Treated

Alicia Nyborg

Alicia Nyborg (top right), owner of SuperTech, is joined by the company’s rising young stars.

At SuperTech (Fayetteville, GA), all employees must abide by the Golden Rule. Alicia Nyborg, owner, says, “We first train our employees in the core values of our company. We stress customer service, honesty and integrity, and, above all, we treat others the way we want to be treated.”

Each new employee shadows an experienced service manager on customer calls. “We introduce them to each customer so that they can get a sense of what each one wants. Some customers are very specific about how they want their materials delivered. New employees need to learn that up front to understand how to keep our customers happy,” says Nyborg. 

While Millennials bring an advanced sense of technology with them to the industry, Nyborg cautions that it is easy for them to become distracted. “The advancements in technology, like texting and smart phones, are great and beneficial when they are used properly. But they can’t be used on company time. We have to constantly be aware of efficiency. When employees become sidetracked, we start losing money.”


No Individual Problems, Only Company Problems

“At W&H Systems (Carlstadt, NJ), there are no individual problems,” says Vice President and General Manager Kenneth Knapp. “Part of our culture is that we are a team. There are no mechanical issues or installation issues, there are only W&H issues.”

When hiring young employees, Knapp searches for individuals who understand that big-picture approach. “It is a skill that we look for when we interview, but it’s harder to tell if young interviewees have it compared to someone with industry experience,” says Knapp. “We have interviewed some very talented individuals who just didn’t fit our culture. We value employees who embody our cultural personality just as much as those with raw engineering ability.”

All young employees go through a mentoring program before they can work on their own. Employees are set up with their mentors based on the projects and opportunities that the company is working on. Because of the complexity of the industry, some employees undergo six months to a year of initial training before going out on their own. “Experience and wisdom aren’t things that you come out of school with,” Knapp notes. “Those are things that take time to learn. Our mentoring program eases them into the industry.”


Recruiting from the Military

Ted Springer

An avid recruiter from the military, Springer Equipment Company President Ted Springer (left) showcases a flag from Camp Anaconda in Iraq with Product Support Representative Mike Zampelli.

Springer Equipment Company (Birmingham, AL) has begun to push toward a younger work force after the company’s healthcare provider informed them that hiring employees younger than 35 would lower its insurance premium. “I was stunned when they told me that,” President Ted Springer says. “They told me that our average age was too high and that it was actually costing us money.”

To address this issue, Springer recruits veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars who served in the Heavy Equipment and Tank battalion. “These young employees have a great work ethic and often come to us with a strong mechanical skill set from their position in the military,” says Springer. Because of their mechanical background, Springer is able to spend more time focusing on safety and company culture as new employees are integrated into the company.

The company’s practice of recruiting military veterans dates back to the 1990-91 Desert Storm conflict, when it hired Mike Zampelli. Zampelli has been with the company for 18 years and has stayed involved with the VFW and VA. His connection with those organizations enables Springer to contact soldiers returning from overseas, such as Specialist First Class Jared Roberts, who joined Springer as a technician after serving in Iraq. “I encourage all of my fellow material handling dealer principals to interview veterans. They have a tremendous amount to offer, both from a technical aspect and a cultural aspect. They are obviously experienced with handling conflict, hardship and working as a member of a team,” Springer says.


Making an Investment

Russell Caldwell

Memphis Material Handling President and CEO Russell Caldwell has all new employees take a hands-on approach to learning the equipment.

“Hiring an employee is a major investment,” says Memphis Material Handling (Memphis, TN), President and CEO Russell Caldwell. “All of our young employees shadow a superintendent for at least six months. Even our salespeople have to work in the field before they can begin selling. Our employees must have a deep understanding of the industry and our company before going out on their own. Sometimes training can take up to a year, but it is important that young employees be immersed in the field before we let them represent our company.”

That hands-on experience allows salespeople to speak intelligently about the products and services that the company offers. “Good communication skills and a college degree are very important. But being able to know the applications and have intimate knowledge and experience with the products is more important,” Caldwell says.


Utilizing the Internet

Bob Levin

Material Handling Supply President Bob Levin uses online job search sites to recruit promising young employees.

At Material Handling Supply (Brooklawn, NJ), almost 15 percent of the company’s 122 employees are younger than 30. President Bob Levin is recruiting younger employees using job search sites like Monster.com and Craigslist.org. “We have gotten some high-quality applicants from online job searching sites,” says Levin. “It’s a good approach, and it is much quicker than the traditional newspaper ads in the classified section.”

The company orients young employees with intensive on-the-job training. “As they begin to learn the industry, they can find the career path that they desire,” says Levin. “To be successful, they need to have the capabilities to perform that job function, but first they must have an interest and a desire.”

In addition to the OJT, young employees are given a handbook detailing company culture, job expectations and company benefits. Employees are also offered group skills training classes. “We’re a service company,” says Levin. “All of our training is geared toward learning our culture. It is important for young employees to understand what our customers expect and what we expect from them as a company.”


Learning Different Perspectives

John Calkins

Meyer Material Handling Products Vice President of Sales John Calkins advises his assistant, Annmarie Underwood, on a project.

Meyer Material Handling Products (Indianapolis, IN) uses a temp service as a way to find and recruit young employees. “The service offers both our company and the employee a flexible way to get a feel for each other,” says John Calkins, vice president of sales at the company’s Atlanta branch. “It is usually a three- or six-month trial to determine if there is a fit. We have hired several of our young employees through this service.”

When bringing a young employee onboard, Calkins utilizes several training processes to familiarize the employee with the company and the industry. “All of our younger employees spend time with experienced, older employees and also other young employees. It helps them understand the company and the industry, but also gives them a feel for how different generations approach problems,” Calkins says. The company also has young employees spend time looking at manufacturer and competitor websites. “Having them look at other industry websites sparks questions that give us a way to gauge what they need from a training standpoint.”

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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