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WRLA launches online certification program to attract, aid new hires

By James Careless

Losing Baby Boomer employees to retirement is a big issue for western Canadian Lumber and Building Materials (LBM) retailers.

“Across Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, the percentage of LBM workers 55-plus is anywhere from 23 to 26 percent, depending on the province,” said Liz Kovach. She is president of the Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA), whose members come from these provinces plus British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Northwestern Ontario, Yukon Territory, and Nunavut. “With so many of the LBM workforce close to retirement, we have to take steps to bring new people into the industry; not just as cashiers and retail staff, but across every LBM function for the long-term,” Kovach said.

The WRLA has been extremely active in attracting new blood to the LBM industry. For instance, the WRLA’s NexGEN Program brings together western LBM retailers/wholesalers with students considering their career choices. The NexGEN program tours those students around LBM stores and facilities, to open their minds to the industry as a life-long profession.

This said, the WRLA is always looking for new ways to attract more prospective hires to the Canadian LBM industry; an economic powerhouse that is worth $46 billion annually and that employs 135,000 people nationwide. So when Calgary’s Mount Royal University approached the WRLA to establish a first-of-its kind online certification program for the LBM industry, the association said yes.

Known as the “WRLA Fundamentals of the Lumber and Building Supply Industry Certificate,” this four-week online program educates students in major aspects of the Canadian LBM sector. When completed, certificate holders will be able to confidently approach LBM companies for employment; whether in their local markets or across the country through the Building Material Council of Canada’s national online job board.

“The WRLA Fundamentals Program was developed with the active input and support of our members, so when a Canadian LBM employer sees that a job applicant has this certification, they know that this person has the skills they’re looking for – and sufficient interest in the LBM industry to invest time and money learning about it.” (The WRLA is planning to offer some degree of educational subsidy to successful certificate graduates.)

Seizing an Opportunity

The WRLA’s decision to launch its certification program is certainly driven by the need to replace retiring Baby Boomers in the LBM workforce. But it is also motivated by a near-term opportunity to attract talented people to the industry, who might otherwise be available.     

“Although we are open to all kinds of interested prospects, we are definitely targeting people who used to work in western Canada’s oil and gas industry,” said Kovach. “The continuing downturn has left a lot of people unemployed. These are the kind of skilled employees who could fit well into the LBM sector; whether in Sales, Supplies, or Management doing everything from Administration to IT.”

What the Program Offers

The WRLA Fundamentals of the Lumber and Building Supply Industry Certificate Program is made up of four three-hour online courses. They are currently being run as a month-long block, with the whole process staring fresh each month.   

Because the four courses were created with substantial WRLA member input, they reflect the real-life priorities of western Canadian LBM retailers/wholesalers. The titles are:

  • Industry Literacy (a.k.a. ‘Intro to LBM’ or LBM 101′)
  • Industry Negotiation Skills
  • Industry Active Listening and Communication & Building Customer Relations within Industry
  • Industry Critical Thinking

The Industry Literacy Skills begins by explaining the history of the WRLA (founded in 1890; now up to 1200 members with its headquarters in Winnipeg) and the association’s goals. The course then delves into the LBM’s Business Operations, with an emphasis on product procurement, distribution, and sales. The goal is to provide the student with an ‘LBM 101′ basic perspective to understanding the industry.

Negotiation is a key skill in the LBM industry; be it the negotiations between retailers and suppliers, retailers and customers, or retailers with each other. The Industry Negotiation Skills course gets students into the mindset of a successful negotiator, with the primary focus being on “negotiating the goods or services that your organization needs to acquire from another party,” said the course outline. This unit explains the dynamics and stages of the negotiation process, and the differences between Distributive (win-lose) and Integrative (win-win) negotiation strategies. (The current U.S. President is a classic example of a Distributive negotiator – a common approach in business – in an international political environment where Integrative negotiations have been the norm since the end of World War 2.)

As its name suggests, the Industry Active Listening and Communication & Building Customer Relations within Industry course examines ways that humans communicate, and the most effective ways to do so in order to maximize customer relationships. This same knowledge can improve a prospect’s interactions with other staff members – and the success of their appeals to possible LBM employers.

Finally, the Industry Critical Thinking course details the importance of being able to think rationally and clearly about what to do or what to believe, and how critical thinking pertains to success in the LBM industry. The aim of this course is to get prospective LBM employees to develop critical thinking processes for making better customer relations, management, procurement, and sales decisions. The goal is to encourage creative, rational, and proactive thinking among LBM employees as they scale the employment ladder.

An Enlightened Approach to Attracting New Blood

Taken as a whole, the WRLA Fundamentals Program is an enlightened approach to attracting new people to the LBM industry. By taking a certificate-based approach, successful graduates have something tangible that they can use to impress LBM companies during job interviews.

At the same time, the LBM managers conducing these interviews know that these graduates are both well-informed about the industry they are seeking to join, and serious enough to have attained this certification.

Finally, the fact that the WRLA Fundamentals Program is available through Mount Royal University online makes it easily accessible to students anywhere in their spare time.  This broadens the base of potential graduates, and new blood for the LBM industry.

“As an association, the WRLA is serious about helping our members through the Baby Boomer retirement crunch,” said Liz Kovach. “The WRLA Fundamentals Program is a big part of this solution.”

For more information, go to www.wrla.org/education/wrla-mru/

Working to Aid the LBM Industry

The WRLA’s decision to launch the Certificate Program is all about aiding its regional LBM members in any way it can. This is the same reason that the WRLA banded with other regional LBM associations across the country to found the Building Material Council of Canada. (The other BMCC founding members are the Atlantic Building Supply Dealers Association, the Lumber & Building Materials Association of Ontario, and the Building Supply Industry Association of British Columbia.)

“As a national organization, the BMCC serves as an authoritative voice for Canada’s LBM industry in Ottawa, in ways that its founding associations with their regional priorities often can’t,” said Kovach. “When the BMCC speaks to government, it is delivering a unified message from all of us – and there is strength in numbers.” The BMCC is also focussed on job creation in the LBM industry, supporting affordable housing initiatives and green housing & infrastructure programs. 

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