One of the most pressing topics in the wood products industry is how to entice young people to want to work in the industry. The challenge of attracting talent to forest products has huge implications on the industry as we move forward and needs to be addressed before it’s too late. However, the question remains: How can the industry attract and retain young people?
In working closely with students over the last six years, I’ve been able to glean information about what is driving their decisions as far as companies to seek out for employment. At the most basic levels, the following areas are the most talked about, the most urgent, and possibly the easiest to address as a starting point.
One of the areas that causes the most concern with young people is the language used for recruitment purposes. A perfect example of this is using the word “sexy” to describe the industry in any manner. This is weird, off-putting, and just not a good practice. Equating an industry with a word that should not be used outside of the bedroom is something to avoid. But it isn’t just this word, it’s the use of language that is either too casual or too complex.
Young people don’t want to hear your hip way to describe your company; they want to know what you do. They want to know what your environmental policies are, what your corporate culture is, how they can see themselves in your company. And they also don’t want to have to decipher what acronyms mean or have to Google the terms you are using in your product descriptions. Use language that is comfortable, real, and to the point. The succinct nature of real talk can be a selling point for your company. “I want to know exactly what the company does, what they sell, and what their business philosophy is,” said Brent McGrath, OSU Wood Science and Engineering (WSE) student.
In this case, culture refers to a company’s efforts to create a workplace environment that is conducive to team work, self-directed work, collaborative approaches to projects, unique or interesting benefits, and a variety of other factors. Does a company prefer a traditional 9-5 format, or is there room for flexibility? Do you consider off-site team building activities a positive consumption of time, or would you prefer to have your employees attend a training in-house to build comradery? Considering a remote working policy could attract younger employees who prefer to be able to work from home, or to be able to work while traveling. “I would like to be able to travel and maintain employment at the same company. The ability to work while on the road is probably the most important thing to me,” said Jacob Newton, another WSE student.
Another aspect of culture that is important to young people entering the workforce is diversity. Do a variety of employees from all walks of life work at your company? Is this a priority to your organization? Diversity may be more difficult to accomplish in an industry that historically has not been diverse, but companies that are making strides in this area are more attractive to emerging professionals.
Investment in the Company
Another element of company culture is ownership. This doesn’t necessarily mean employees are stockholders or have a financial incentive to stay, but rather that they feel like their contributions to the company are valued, respected and encouraged. Feeling proud of the company you work for and the job you do is a significant element of retention. This includes a company’s commitment to being a good environmental steward, community involvement, providing employees with incentives to participate in community service, and providing ample opportunities for professional development.
When a young person feels like their contributions are recognized and encouraged, they are more likely to stay long term with said company. “I would be turned off of a company if they didn’t listen to new ideas and weren’t open to innovation,” said Adam Chavez, WSE student.
Landing a new position in a company you are largely unfamiliar with can be daunting. But entering the same situation with the added benefit of a relatable mentor to help guide one through the first foundational years can be a strong factor in staying long term. The isolation of being new is hard to overcome if the element of social ability is lacking. For those new employees that are unsure and perhaps under prepared, having someone to reach out to can be the difference between an employee that leaves after a year and one who stays on for five years or more.
As educators, we get a lot of feedback from companies that entering employees are sometimes lacking in soft skills. This is largely true because there are aspects of the wood products industry that are impossible to teach until you are actually there. The recurring theme is that they didn’t learn the smaller industry details such as acronyms used, terms that companies call certain products, and some of the nuances that cannot be taught prior to being in the industry. Adding a mentor into the mix of an onboarding process provides a new employee a resource, without the fear of looking uneducated and stupid. This is a matter of investment, investing into your younger employees to retain them for a longer period of time. And it should start before the new employee even steps foot into the company. Reaching out prior to employment can have a lasting impact on potential employees and drive them to ultimately choose to pursue employment with the companies that offered this personalized touch. The loyalty built from these relationships can be the determining factor in a decision to stay or to start looking elsewhere. It all goes back to culture, and in this case, a strong mentoring program can show the impact of the cultural shift to caring and nurturing an employee.
This may sound like too much “touchy-feely fluff” for a company to take on. But to young people today, this isn’t just about a job. This is about life. About taking pride in the job they do, being fulfilled by the company and the position they are in, and feeling like they are working in an industry that is affecting change in the world we live in.