Andel and Handling -- Life in Logistics: A Reward, Not a Sentence

You can't make people work in your warehouse, so why not make them want to work there?

Our Annual Editorial Advisory Board Roundtable may not be "Meet the Press," but Brian Jones is a fan of both. In fact he gets sucked in by both forums when the topic is careers. Brian's career happens to be at Wal-Mart. He manages bananas at the chain's Sterling, Ill., distribution center. He specializes in the logistics of bananas—handling them, ripening them and distributing them to his region's superstores. That's a career? 

Some who are unfamiliar with it might say the same thing about logistics, but Jones sees careers in both. In fact the two go together for him. And he's just the kind of employee all logistics employers are screaming for, as we make clear in our roundtable—which is this month's MH&L cover story.

The purpose of any panel discussion, whether on "Meet the Press" or in MH&L, is to help managers plan for the future. Logistics' future depends on a fresh supply of talent to replace the 50-something managers eyeing retirement in the next few years. Cultivating their kind of talent requires development and follow-through, and where logistics skills are concerned, kids don't seem to have the patience to complete their swing through the warehouse. 

"These kids just want to get a job and the employer just wants to employ them," MH&L board member and retired Marine Al Will says. "The training has to take place in less than 30 days and get them the skills to get out there."

That's the equivalent of throwing bodies at a problem—an exercise that both employees and employers tend to lock themselves into. Employees get bored or burned by such a task orientation and employers don't take the time to teach them any differently. 

MH&L board member and industrial trainer Jim Shephard has had success in developing programs that break this vicious cycle by preparing young people for life within and beyond the warehouse. Again, as in golf, success is all about follow-through.

"By taking it down to basics we started seeing growth and people retained what they were taught," Shephard says. "The most important thing was to see them practice what they were taught. We followed these people for 13 weeks after training at the job site along with supervision and management. The success rate was in the high 90s." 

But another key component Shephard stresses is building communication skills beyond the tweet level. In his training he includes a classroom on how to communicate and on becoming a team player. 

If that sound like employer-administered Kool-Aid, then it's Brian Jones' favorite beverage at Wal-Mart. Ever since I met him during my coverage of Wal-Mart's annual stockholders meeting a few months ago, he's been updating me on his career progress. He says his employer not only encourages career-thinking early on, but it's kept in plain view at the worksite. 

"I think the percent of Wal-Mart managers who started out as hourly associates is somewhere around 75%," Jones told me. "The career/vision thing is usually a topic in our annual associate opinion survey.  Our building did not score well last year on those questions, so our managers have been reminding us of the many opportunities we have at our company." 

Jones embodies Shephard's concept of a communicator and team player. In fact Jones conducted an informal survey of his own among his fellow associates in the distribution center and found a 50/50 split between job holders and career seekers. If that percentage of careerists seems high, Jones credits the corporate culture.

"In our company there are many opportunities to move both horizontally and vertically," he concluded. "About one year ago, Wal-Mart moved everything online, so all the searching and applying is done electronically.  I am tempted to see if the store in Hawaii has any openings."

Jones is a young man of vision, and he sees himself staying put at Wal-Mart. Granted, few employers can offer the kind of mobility that gives a kid the option of applying for a position at one of its Hawaii locations. But here's a takeaway for anybody either offering or seeking a logistics job: Hawaii can also be a state of mind.

Follow me on Twitter @TomAndel.

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