Ken Kuehn & Frank Chambers

Some of us in the building industry are getting older. No surprise, given that many of us have been in the business for more than 40 years. In our travels around the country, two things are becoming apparent: managers, sales and key support people are getting older, and too few young people are being recruited into the industry. Thousands of these young people in the industry lost their jobs in the recession, never to return. If you don't believe it, just try to find a good truss designer who is willing to relocate. Fat chance. The same can be said for estimators, operations managers and outside sales people. To complicate things further, as the "old guard" retires and turns over the reins, builders are getting younger. And this next generation values technology and process improvement more than relationships.

We recently met with a very successful LBM to discuss some key job openings that need filled. The COO said that of their 15 management-level employees (field and HQ) none are under the age of 30 and only two under 45. To make matters worse, at least seven plan on retiring in the next three years. They know an influx of young talent is necessary but have had very little success trying to recruit Millennials, a term that generally includes people aged 16-32. They are the generation that grew up with the Internet, the X-Box and digital music. And though their attitude towards work and professional life is much different than their Baby Boomer and Generation X counterparts, it is just as important. If our industry is going to successfully compete for the best young talent, we need to adjust and figure out how to attract this generation of employees. There are a number of things you can do to make your business more attractive to Millennials:

Dump the stodgy look: Does your website look the same as the day it went active 15 years ago? Are you using company capability literature or advertising designed in the 1990s? Do you have a Facebook page and is it updated frequently? Do you use Twitter to disseminate useful information, ensuring customers keep you top of mind? Consider this step one in a rebranding project that will help communicate your message to both customers and prospective employees. One more thing: assign social media and website updating responsibilities to a 20-something with social media expertise. For many of them, it's second nature, and many leave college or internships already having experience in social media management.

Don't tie them to a chair: Millennials crave flexibility in their work environment. They don't want to be chained to a desk, so take a holistic approach and get them exposed to the entire business inside and out. Beyond creating a flexible workforce, young employees can see exactly how their jobs impact the business and the customer. When an employee has earned your trust, consider offering flexible hours. A four-day work week or the opportunity to telecommute one day a week if the position allows (as in the case of estimators, designers and outside sales people) provides the flexibility Millennials desire.

Paychecks are important, but so is social responsibility and a sense of purpose: Of course compensation is important—your business has to make money. Millennials understand that, but they believe it should be done in a socially responsible manner. Touting your commitment to green and sustainable products (and meaning it) says a lot about your company and what it stands for. So does embracing a local charity or cause and making it part of the company culture through direct involvement as well as financial support. 

Respect their ideas and input: In many traditional businesses, new ideas and strategies typically come from the top. Be sure to seek Millennials' input—really listen to them and treat the strategy process as a team exercise. Not only will you get more out of it, but they will gain valuable experience that will serve your company down the line. And don't be a "that won't work here" or "we've never tried that" kind of manager. One characteristic of our greying industry is its resistance to change—for example, the adaptation and application of technology. Trust us on this: your tech-savvy Millennials will help integrate technology into your everyday business practices in ways you never dreamed of.

Don't forget mentoring: Mixing the generations in the work place can create some interesting dynamics. Create a formal mentoring program where young employees are mentored by experienced veterans. We guarantee good things will happen; both parties will benefit, and you will have a combination of strong traditions, modern technology and fresh thinking.

There are those who do not believe they can be entrusted with major responsibilities in a business. But managers who dismiss the importance of Millennial employees need only look at the USS Ronald Reagan—arguably the most complex and sophisticated super carrier in the world. Watching the flight deck in action is incredible, with teams of sailors flawlessly performing the tasks that safely launch and land aircraft. And you know what? The average sailor working the flight deck is 20 years old. So don't think for a minute that Millennials aren't capable of performing at a high level in our industry. All it takes is a sense of purpose, some quality training and constructive feedback and support. And make it fun, because it can be!

About the Authors

Frank Chambers
As a 40 year veteran of the lumber and building materials industry, Frank Chambers has a diverse background that includes operations, sales, finance and mergers and acquisitions. He has held senior executive positions with a number of industry leaders including Wickes Lumber and Pro-Build.

Ken Kuehn
With more than 40 years industry experience Ken Kuehn has a solid background and extensive contacts throughout the building materials and component industries. He has several senior leadership positions with well-known industry players including Wickes Lumber, Huttig Building Products and ITW-Alpine.

After long careers with industry giants like Wickes Lumber, ProBuild, ITW and Payless Cashways, as well as Huttig Building Products, Frank Chambers and Ken Kuehn partnered to form CK Solutions, a company dedicated to the lumber and building materials industry. They specialize in executive and general management recruiting and are also a resource for filling key facility, operations, manufacturing and sales management roles. Finally, they offer consulting services from strategic planning to business valuations. If you're interested in learning more or contacting them, please visit www.cksolutions.us.