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“Classy” New Way to Groom Tomorrow’s Lumber Leaders

Last fall, I found myself on one end of a videoconference, using a PowerPoint presentation to describe the ins and outs of how to sell lumber. While that’s not so unusual—we at Universal Forest Products often do this type of...

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Last fall, I found myself on one end of a videoconference, using a PowerPoint presentation to describe the ins and outs of how to sell lumber. While that’s not so unusual—we at Universal Forest Products often do this type of thing to orient new trainees—the difference was the audience taking notes on the other side of the screen.

Collectively, the 12 to 15 fresh young faces looking back at me represented the first class to enter—and eventually to complete—the UFPI Business School’s Degree Program. They came out of the program with two years of classroom learning; practical, on-the-job training that they could apply immediately; and a head start on their careers in this industry. Since then, two more classes of hand-picked students are currently digging into this exciting opportunity—which benefits both them and us!

Here’s how it works in a nutshell:
Although anyone can apply, Degree Program students tend to fall into one of two groups. Often, they are go-getters who want the opportunity to learn but may not be positioned financially to attend a traditional four-year college. In addition, eager self-starters who would rather skip the university experience and get right into the nitty-gritty of the business are prime candidates. Whatever walk of life they come from, those accepted for participation undergo an immersive curriculum that exposes them to various aspects of the business in general—including finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing—while also teaching them about the culture at UFPI specifically and giving them a solid foundation on which to build their professional growth and advancement. Any way you look at it, our program gets participants a proverbial foot in the door—and without spending a dime!

Financial Perks Create a Win-Win

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Degree Program is the cost: there is none. Nope, that’s not a typo—students get two years of invaluable instruction and experience, for free. There’s no tuition, and no student loans hanging over their heads for years to come. Not only do participants not have to pay for this education, they also have the opportunity to actually bring in some income during their enrollment.

That’s because, as part of the curriculum, they will spend part of their time in one of our 130 plants scattered throughout the country, applying what they learned in the classroom and getting hands-on training in sales and management, production and purchasing. Students may spend time working in the yard, using the machines to make lumber, and observing the truck loading/unloading processes. They’ll take inside sales calls, learning to provide quotes to big-box retailers, for example; and they’ll also hit the road with outside sales reps to get a feel for what their days are like. These periodic assignments are essentially paid internships, making the Degree Program a “learn and earn” experience.

When not pulling down a paycheck from their work in our facilities, students are in the books, so to speak. Aside from their on-the-job exposures, they’re also getting face-to-face classroom instruction from the experts in our company about our business specifically and business in general. Again, they are also privy to video presentations like the ones that I and other members of the purchasing department delivered in the fall. Departments companywide, from sales to accounts payable, also contribute to the learning experience. There are homework, tests and, at the end of two years, a graduation ceremony and degree.

What Happens Next

Even before they have degree in hand, students are researching UPFI job opportunities and making important connections. Although some may receive offers even before graduation, they will complete the program before shifting into those roles. When they find a position that matches their interests, they arrange for an interview. Immediate placement is not guaranteed, but the advance know-how that graduates have gives them a leg up over the average applicant off the street or straight out of college. If I was a general manager at one of our plants and I had a person that had gone through this process and learned about our culture and company—what we do and how we do it—that’s somebody I’d want to work for me.

Potentially, that’s also somebody another company might want as well. The kind of knowledge, skills, and work experience our students gain is valuable and could easily be applied elsewhere, although naturally it is our goal to retain these students and have them pursue a career within our company.
It is certainly a gamble to provide this education free of cost, so we try to hedge that bet by selecting the applicants that we believe are most likely to be successful—those who are eager and excited to work and who appear to be committed to their career track. Aside from that, we hope the business landscape at UFPI will be incentive enough to win their loyalty. We are a fast-growing $4 billion international company, with locations throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In addition to endless opportunities for career advancement, employees enjoy other perks that come with working for a large company, including stock benefits and relocation offers.
It costs money to train new workers, and pulling from the pool of graduates from the Degree Program can help alleviate some of that cost. What cost remains is well worth it for the right employees, and is considered in investment that can set the company up with a pipeline of talent to draw from as we continue to grow. Students, in exchange, can forge a quicker path to professional success and get a competitive edge over traditional college students who have less or no real-world experience. With only one graduating class under our belt, there may not be a lot of hard data yet to back up those assumptions, but things are looking good from where I sit.