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Blog: Distributor Perspective: Hiring and Replacing Talent

By Bridget McCrea

Like many companies, Atlantic Electric Supply Corp., has moved itself out of “hiring freeze” mode and is now operating in a more stable business environment that calls for more hands on deck. As part of that progression, the Washington, D.C.-based distributor is now slowly rounding out its 30-employee stable with several new additions. “When the recession was in full swing we weren’t even replacing those employees who left on their own accord,” says Derek Coen, vice president of operations for the 3-location distributorship. “We started hiring again about a year ago and have been trying to focus on getting young, bright people onto our team.”

Achieving that goal may be easier said than done in today’s job market, where employers across all industries are vying for top candidates in an environment that just 2-3 years ago would have largely worked in the hirer’s favor. Skilled and knowledgeable salespeople – both inside and outside – are especially difficult to find and keep. Managers and executive types are equally as elusive. “We’ve been having a tough time with it,” says Coen, “particularly when it comes to filling sales positions.”

Coen says the age-old strategy of pulling experienced, skilled workers from other distributors doesn’t work so well anymore. In fact, he says those employees who do agree to come onboard often bring with them baggage that the past employer was more than happy to unload. “We used to hire from other distributors that had training and development programs in place,” recalls Coen, who points to Rexel as one company in the D.C region that offered extensive employee training and often served as a breeding ground for potential candidates. That potential pool has since dried up, according to Coen, who no longer sees poaching as a good hiring strategy.

“These days, if someone has been floating around from distributor-to-distributor we would think twice about hiring them because they are probably out there for a reason,” says Coen. “In the past, however, that experience was almost a job prerequisite.”

Testing Out New Methods
The fact that experienced distribution personnel aren’t knocking down Atlantic Electric Supply’s door for jobs has forced the company to rethink the way it fills its warehouse, distribution, sales, and administrative positions across three different locations. Rather than seeking out industry experience and then hoping for a personality and cultural match, for example, the company focuses on bringing in smart, capable individuals who can be trained on the fine points of electrical distribution over time, says Coen. “We’ve come to realize that it’s easier to train people that are bright and willing to learn, rather than trying to find the complete package in the current labor pool.”

Atlantic Electric has also tested out some of the newer hiring methods available to distributors, such as social networking and online job boards. Coen says he’s looking to fill one position right now and that he’s already received numerous resumes for it via the business social networking site LinkedIn. The company has also used Craigslist – where it posts ads for open positions in the online forum – and has enlisted the help of corporate headhunters on occasion. On the organic side, the company’s leadership team spends more time networking with other distributors – and with vendors and customers – to ferret out possible job candidates.

“We’re networking a lot more than we used to and talking to people in the industry about our hiring needs and what we have to offer as a company,” says Coen, who has also advertised open positions via nearby University of Maryland’s career center without much luck. “I received a few good resumes, but we didn’t hire anyone using that route.”

Another hiring method that Atlantic Electric Supply is using these days doesn’t involve new recruits, but it does require some repositioning. For example, when one of the company’s warehouse managers began showing signs of burnout recently, Coen talked to the 40-something employee about possibly moving over into a different position. “We wound up transferring him into sales and he’s really enjoying it,” says Coen. “Not only was he able to train his own replacement in the warehouse, but now we have a salesperson who fully understands both sides of electrical distribution. It’s a win-win.”

A Focus on Company Growth
No single recruiting method is working for Atlantic Electric Supply right now, but Coen says the company’s combined efforts have led it to a few potential candidates over the last 12 months. To get out in front of the situation, he says the company is even “hiring ahead” when good candidates are identified for future positions. “When we find a good fit we try to find a place for him or her,” says Coen, “instead of waiting for positions to open up and then running ads. With the economy stabilizing, we have enough confidence to make that strategy work.”

Looking to the future, Coen says he’ll test out other methods while continuing to rely on NAED’s training and recruiting resources to help fill positions across various functions. Right now, he says building out the company’s leadership team – which is stretched to the limit – is a top priority. “Our bench is pretty thin and the three of us basically spend all of our time handling the crises of the day or covering when people are sick,” says Coen. “Our goal for the future is to build a layer in that it will allow us to focus on more important tasks – like company growth.”

Editor’s note: Come back to tedmag.com Friday for 10 leadership traits to look for when building your bench.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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