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December 2017
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Industry offers career diversity

To Mike Flamer, a large distribution center with its conveyors and elevators looks like a life-size Lionel train set. The fascination with all the moving parts are part of what Flamer, of The Dorfman Group, which recruits for the material handling industry, loves about his work. With 24 years in the business, he sees people in material handling as “very grounded. It’s really a blue collar industry,” despite the sophistication and intricacies of the centers, he said. “It’s the backbone of all logistics.” Better marketing of the essential nature of material handling and the opportunities it provides would help attract people to the industry, Flamer said.

When potential employees realize that every product in every store got there by way of material handling, they begin to see the possibilities. Bob Campbell, of The Search Group, specializes in the placement of candidates in material handling, supply chain and automated warehouse solutions. “I truly love it. I’ve been doing it for over 11 years and should have retired 10 years ago,” Campbell said. “First, it’s the type of people it attracts.  Throughout my personal career, working with clients from other industries and then comparing them with the members of the materials handling industry, it’s readily apparent that materials handling people are unique,” Campbell said. “Like some other industries, each day is a different challenge.  One has the ability to select their specific goal and with dedication to be able to attain it.  A person can also cross train from one specialty to another within the industry.”

Earlier in his career, Campbell started and sold three material handling companies and was the first employee of the US operations for a leading Japanese company. “Rather than retire after selling my last company, I performed some consulting for former colleagues and that turned into recruiting,” he said.

Opportunities in material handling are many and varied. Because it touches every industry, every day is different. “The avenue is to join a company as an entry-level employee and work your way up.  It is also possible to have a skill set that will transpose the gap between one industry and another, i.e., sales, design engineering, etc.,” Campbell said.

Material handling offers jobs in sales, information technology, accounting, customer service, marketing, human resources, and project management, among others. Entrepreneurs can find a spot in distributorships. “Current shortage in the materials handling industry is most apparent in the engineering field, specifically industrial engineers, control engineers, IT engineers and design engineers. When the recession hit, regretfully many of these specialists left the industry and have not come back.  When the economy returns to normal, I’m sure some will return along with recent graduates,” Campbell said.

Flamer would add structural engineers to the list of needed workers, as well as project managers and business development specialists. “I’m not sure what the statistics are this year, but a few years ago, the materials handling industry was the fourth largest industry in the country.  A good way to understand the materials handling industry is to recognize that if a product is moved, stored, packaged, lifted or transported, it is done so with materials handling equipment.  That’s from the iron ore coming out of the ground to the grocery carts in your local supermarket,” Campbell said.

The ways to keep good employees are not secret or specific to material handling, Flamer said. “They have to be appreciated and they have to be challenged. They have to be competitively compensated. And they have to see a path to growth.” “You can make good money,” Flamer said. “You can make good, solid money.” One way to attract people to the industry is to offer scholarships, internships and introduction to the opportunities as early as high school.

Associations are a good way to introduce students to material handling, said Will Heddles, president of the Material Handling Education Foundation and of Tiffin Metal Products. At first glance, material handling might not appear to have “all the glitz and glamor” of  some other occupations, he said, but when people realize the breadth of it – from the beginning to the end user, with lots of steps in between – they begin to see the opportunities.

Here are several programs to help the next generation of material handling employees understand the potential, from Carol Miller, Material Handling Industry of America vice president of marketing and communications:

  • The College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education’s goal is to increase awareness, understanding, exploration, and development of material handling and logistics at the university undergraduate and graduate level.
  • The Technical Career Education Program’s mission is to provide instructional support to educational institutions seeking to provide training for students at the high school and community college level in the area of warehousing and distribution, supply chain and logistics.
  • The College-Industry Council and Technical Career Education Program hold an annual classroom day at MHIA trade events that provide high school, community college and university students the opportunity to attend special educational sessions and tour the show floor.
  • The Material Handling Education Foundation offers a variety of scholarships to students pursuing an education in material handling. In addition to providing scholarships, funds also sponsor grants to faculty and students to attend off-campus industry conferences and seminars directly related to the field of material handling research, to colleges or universities for purchase of classroom instructional aids and lab materials and fellowships for special research.

The aim is to build the industry’s future workforce. Scholarships, internships and fellowships all contribute.

Warehouse employees don’t have to be college graduates, but training is still important so they don’t see the work as a dead-end job.  According to a “State of the Distribution Workforce and What It Means for the Material Handling Industry,” the annual warehouse turnover rate is 24.4 percent, compared to 18.7 percent for all industries. Warehouse workers said they left because of long hours, the physical nature of the work, and excessive overtime. “Some employees described the job as mundane, repetitive and boring,” the report said. They appreciated opportunities for cross training because of the variety it offers. And they said pay and benefits were attractive.

While automation and technology make the work easier, workers feared they would lose their job or wouldn’t be able to learn to use the new equipment. Employees were more accepting of change if management communicated change early and often, and if they were allowed some input into how the new technology would be implemented. They also felt better if they were assured their job would not be replaced by the new technology, the report said. Training in how to use the new technology, as well as its purpose and the benefit to them, also helped with reassurance and acceptance.

 Mary Glindinning is a freelance writer who has worked at daily and weekly newspapers for more than 20 years. She lives in rural Shullsburg, Wis. You may contact her by e-mailing