It’s no secret the wood industry is graying and that companies are anxious to fill the shoes of seasoned pros who reach retirement age. As a member of the newest wave to enter the workforce—Generation Z—and the youngest employee in my office, I’m just getting my feet wet in this business. But one year out of school and on the payroll, I already see why the people who work in the industry also love it.
Reflections of a Rookie
Having no exposure to the wood products sector, no related coursework, and no family ties, I also had no expectations when I landed an internship with Timber Products Company at the start of my senior year of college. My academic focus was on sales and marketing, a skill that can apply just about anywhere, but luck put me in the path of Timber Products. I never expected that a fast commitment to the firm and to the industry would lead to a full-time position, new friends, and a sense of purpose at the start of my professional career.
That’s exactly what happened, though: the initial 9-month internship was renewed for a shorter, summer stint after graduation. That morphed into an offer, and with a Bachelor’s degree in hand I joined Timber Products in an official capacity last October. While there are a few other 20- and 30-somethings in our office, the vast majority of workers are long-time pros. Being the low man on the totem pole might be intimidating in some workplaces, but I quickly learned at Timber Products that this is a company—and an industry—where youth is not a deficit, but an asset.
Of course, the veterans are there to show the younger employees the ropes. I personally have a number of mentors, including my boss, whom I seek out for knowledge. But there’s also a recognition among the experienced set that they have something to learn, too. It’s not unusual, for example, for the operations teams to approach me or the other younger associates because they want to know what people our age like and want. And instead of continuing to do things the same way that they’ve always been done, they often come to us for fresh perspective—such as suggesting a new way to accomplish an existing task or solve a problem, like through software development. Showing young newcomers that they still have something to offer despite limited time in the industry and offering them a seat at the table, so to speak, has the power to instill gratitude, loyalty, and drive, if I am any example.
That give-and-take of knowledge between the old guard and the new breeds a level of trust and dependability, and that in turn allows friendships to bloom and work relationships to thrive. At first, I thought that inclusive culture was just a Timber Products thing. Then, I attended NAWLA’s Traders Market, and I soon realized that this just might be an industry thing. During those crucial networking events, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t even been in the industry full time for a good six months. From sales managers up to CEOs, people went out of their way to introduce me to important connections, make room for me in the conversation, and encourage my participation. No one was looking at my age; and when they were, it was because they were seeing the benefit in it. I remember a marketing director from another firm spending the time to pick my brain — mine, one of the youngest people at the event!—demonstrating that even seasoned insiders outside of Timber Products see value in me and other people my age.
Traders Market also was the gateway for me to get even more involved and build even more relationships, by joining NAWLA’s marketing committee. When I asked for the opportunity to pursue a seat on the panel, my company easily could have deferred on the grounds that I hadn’t been in the industry long enough. Instead, I met nothing but encouragement and support.
Sense of Purpose
The age factor, and the industry’s favorable response to it, has helped to fuel a sense of purpose for me as well. I’ve never viewed myself as someone to spearhead a campaign for diversity, although I do believe this industry and countless others could stand to see more women and people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds in leadership and executive roles. However, in my own small way, I feel part of the movement toward age diversity, and there’s purpose in that. Research suggests that diverse teams, including those with a mix of young and older, foster better decision making. I believe that, and I think it’s important.
That’s not the only place my sense of purpose stems from as it pertains to this industry. In my short time here, I’ve become passionate about the importance of wood as a natural and renewable resource. Wood products may not be the only solution, but it’s certainly one of them. It’s an important issue, and it’s important to the very generations that companies are looking to hire on as the industry ages. In fact, environmental sustainability isn’t just an expectation for Gen Z—it’s nonnegotiable. I think it’s important, then, to talk more about the industry and its eco-friendliness if you want to attract younger workers, like me.
While I already have grown to love this job, this industry, and the people I work with, I don’t have a Magic 8 ball. Who knows what opportunities may come my way and whether or not I’ll remain in this industry for the long haul? It may be too soon to tell where my future will take me; but what I do know is that I couldn’t have asked for a better, more rewarding way to launch my career.
Read the July issues of BPD and Merchant Magazines here.