In a few years, the generation that represents the largest percentage of the U.S. workforce will start retiring. Replacing the Baby Boomers won’t be easy. The workforce that will fill their shoes will be smaller in numbers, wet behind the ears and very much in demand.

“At the very least, we’ll see [a labor shortage] two to three years from now,” said Terry Ludeman, chief of the office of economic advisors for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, in a recent article published in Milwaukee’s Small Business Times.

The jan/san industry, disproportionately weighted with Baby Boomer-age employees, is more susceptible to the impending labor shortage than some other industries. The industry is also in a bit of a pickle. The nascent workforce can’t be expected to automatically recognize career opportunities associated with jan/san product distribution. To compound matters, jan/san distribution companies traditionally place a heavy premium on experience when shopping for sales and management professionals.

“A lot of people coming out of school don’t see [jan/san] as a really glamorous opportunity,” says Jim Shaver, executive recruiter for Niles+Associates, Scottsdale, Ariz. “And from the jan/san distribution side, if they had their druthers, they’d like to hire a seasoned pro — preferably from the competition — who can hit the ground running.” It’s a “push-me, pull-me” situation, he says.

Thinking Young
Regardless of its current hiring track record, the jan/san industry will more than likely have to entertain the prospect of “getting younger” in order to survive. Another challenge: figuring out how to attract the best and brightest of the post-Baby Boomer workforce.

Jim Toppen, coordinator of the industrial distribution program at East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., says distribution faces a serious challenge: it happens to be a little-known career path, despite the industry’s impact on the U.S. economy.

In 2003, total sales by wholesaler-distributors reached $2.9 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The industry employs one in 20 U.S. workers and contributes 7 percent to the United States’ private GDP. Wholesale distribution also drives our country’s economic growth, contributing 25 percent of the total productivity gains in the United States during the past decade.

Where, then, are distribution employees coming from? Degrees in business, and more specifically, distribution, help prepare students for careers in selling and supply chain logistics. Institutions like East Carolina, with dedicated industrial distribution programs, pepper the United States.

The key seems to be distributors finding a way to get in front of those students — and sell the jan/san business — while they’re still in school.

Once distributors do get a foot in the door at any number of learning institutions, how should they go about talking up a career in jan/san sales and distribution? Many experts recommend touting one element the jan/san industry can claim bragging rights to — an element missing from more glamorous industries: job stability. Over the years, the “recession-proof” tag has been pinned on the jan/san industry — primarily because of the ceaseless demand for particular jan/san products. While it’s clear that no industry is entirely recession-proof, the jan/san industry represents the next-best thing when it comes to consistent economic viability.

“What I was looking for in a sales career was repeat business and relationship building,” says Kevin Hughes, an account executive based at the Tewksbury, Mass., branch of jan/san distributor Eastern Bag and Paper. After graduating from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 1996 with a business management degree, Hughes was faced with a bleak realization: nobody was hiring. After a four-year stint in the copier and telecom businesses, he heard about a position at Eastern Bag and Paper.

“What drew me to jan/san was that it was an economically viable industry as opposed to the tech industries,” he says. “There’s always a demand for cleaning supplies and paper supplies that are more cost effective. There’s always opportunity in this type of field.”

Ryan Williams, a senior at East Carolina University, views job security as the No. 1 thing he’ll look for in an employer. Williams will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in industrial distribution in December.

“Lots of companies are laying off right now,” he says. “That should be something that all college students look at.”

The search for job stability has created an affinity for small companies among students, says Dr. Ben Zoghi, program coordinator for Texas A&M’s Industrial Distribution programs, College Station, and the executive director of the Thomas and Joan Read Center for Distribution Research and Education.

“In the past few years, the majority — more than 50 percent of students — have been more interested in joining smaller companies rather than big ones,” he notes. A&M’s industrial distribution program — the largest of its kind in the United States — has about 550 students. “[Students] have witnessed how larger companies reduce people, lay them off and how the term loyalty doesn’t exist.”

Can jan/san distributors afford the best of these bright minds? Zoghi says yes. In fact, he says, salary is secondary compared to some of the other things the younger, emerging workforce is looking for.

“I stay in touch with former students,” says Zoghi, “and the last thing they discuss with me is their salary. Their primary interest is, ‘This is a great working environment.’” They value being recognized, promoted and included, he adds. “Climate, I’d have to say, is No. 1.”

Zoghi’s advice to his students is simple: Do what you love. “One thing we put a lot of emphasis on is don’t look at the numbers; the numbers can be misleading. Be passionate about the industry you want to get into.”

That’s not to say salary is irrelevant, but young college graduates, for the most part, realize that income is based on performance.

“I think they’re looking for a couple things: a fair starting salary, opportunities to be trained and opportunities to grow once they’ve been trained,” says Toppen.

A Worthwhile Investment
The return on investment associated with hiring a young employee or a more experienced salesperson is difficult to measure. Seasoned veterans might produce quicker than a young industry newcomer, but the latter could represent greater long-term potential.

“What [recent graduates] bring is youth and enthusiasm,” says Mike Rowlett, president of Womack Machine Supply, Dallas, a fluid power distributor who has recruited around 45 students from Texas A&M’s Industrial Distribution program. “In most cases, I’d rather have an enthusiastic young salesperson that doesn’t know any better, than a cagey, older person who thinks he has all the answers. We believe strongly in growing our own salespeople,” he says.

Hiring young people does require a unique investment. They need to be taught about the products, the business culture and the industry. If they don’t receive proper education, even the brightest recruits can fail.

Training is a long-term commitment, cautions Rowlett. He says his company has documented the time it takes to train young, talented salespeople.

“It takes a lot of time,” he explains. “We’ve watched them and somewhere in the third year, all of a sudden the light bulb comes on and they understand what it’s all about.” The lifecycle payoff for Rowlett’s typical investment? The average employee tenure is 16 years.

Jan/san Who?
Recruiting starts with educating prospects about what distribution jobs can entail. Few students can define distribution when they enter Texas A&M’s program, says Zoghi. Many are students who initially entered A&M’s engineering program but decided they’d like to pursue a sales career because they enjoy the process of developing professional relationships with people.

Zoghi and Toppen recommend that potential employers get involved with local colleges, speak in front of classes, participate in career fairs, and sponsor internships for students. When students are exposed to an industry during an internship, or earlier, they are more likely to pursue a career in that industry.

Jason Huffines, an account development specialist with Burlington, N.C.-based Industrial Paper Products Inc., entered the industry early, by chance…and stayed. While in college, Huffines began working for a friend’s father’s distributorship. The company was then acquired by Industrial Paper, and Huffines has stayed the course through college, learning the ropes of the business. He recently graduated, and has been with the company full time for five months.

As he approached graduation, Huffine’s career decision was easy. Go with what you know.

“I didn’t give it too much thought. I was comfortable in that area,” he explains.

“One professor in college said that when you’re looking for jobs, there are two criteria: one is compensation, the other is opportunity for growth. I’m familiar with the industry as well as the company,” Huffines says.

The power of internships as a recruitment tool is evident. Both intern and employer get a sense of one another before they commit to working together on a full-time basis.

“If they intern in a particular industry, and they see the possibilities in that, they generally go in that direction,” says Toppen. “Our two biggest employers are companies that have interned our kids.”

“[Speaking] as a student going out there to look at the job market, employers need to make a commitment to actively recruit these students and get them in for internships — groom them while they’re in school,” says Williams. “That’s going to save them a lot of money in the long run.”

“They need to come to our schools,” Toppen concurs. “There’s not a distribution program that isn’t interested in having companies come and present more opportunities for students.”

No Train, No Gain
Many distributors balk at the idea of hiring young people because they are worried that they’ll invest time and money to train them, only to have the newly trained employee leave for another company. Most often, an untimely departure can be traced to inadequate training. Distributors need to commit themselves to teaching new hires about the products, the company and the basics of selling.

“The successful [distributors] really do a good job of putting together an initial training program for these guys,” says Shaver. “They feel like they have the knowledge to go out and sell and be useful to the end-user customers.”

Eastern Bag and Paper realizes the value of proper training, and has implemented a training program specifically to address new salespeople’s needs. Rookie salespeople, when hired, enter a two-year “mentor program” where they work side by side with a seasoned sales rep. This opportunity, says Hughes, was one thing that led him to apply for the position.

“When I learned about the mentor program, I became very interested. It allowed me to get the training in the product and the ways of getting business,” he says.

“It makes me feel comfortable that I’m on my way to success,” he continues. “With the knowledge I’ve gained from this, I can pretty much write my own ticket.”

Mike Gould entered the jan/san industry after 10 years at a desk job with a water-bottling company. He, too, found the industry’s stability attractive. He has now been a sanitary maintenance consultant with Waxie Sanitary Supply’s Santa Ana, Calif., location for 13 months.

Gould’s advice to potential employers is to make sure new, inexperienced employees are provided with tools and training that help them reach their potential.

Employers have to realize the value of employees and the skills they bring to the position, and not allow any employee to slip through the cracks, he says.

Keys to Success and Survival
Successfully tapping into the next generation’s workforce seems to hinge on two key ingredients: 1) tailoring a company’s work culture and opportunities to the job demands of an increasingly youthful but talented job seeker, and 2) selling the jan/san industry, in general, to potential hires.

“We need some fresh blood in this industry,” says Shaver. “The industry in general could do a better job of promoting itself to younger people.”