Friday, May 27, 2016

Co-op Students in Distribution

With the Memorial Day weekend upon us and summer about to officially begin, I have been hit with at least a dozen emails, connects and calls from both distributors and students on the topic of Co-op programs in Distribution. 

Co-op and Intern projects are good for distribution
Back in our father’s day, companies made room for the kids of employees, family and friends in their business.  It was almost like a job benefit, work here and we’ll find a place for your son or daughter during the summer.  There were lots of “make work” projects.  Painting and scrapping, sweeping and shoveling, stacking and unstacking were all on the menu.  Readers who grew up in wholesaling families can probably relate to some of this.  The point is, there were a lot of jobs that nobody wanted and kids often got stuck with them.  It may still be happening…

Today, business is different.  Our building is more professional (with fewer dark obscure rooms requiring paint), our warehouses better laid out and our processes more refined.  The role of the co-op, intern or summer helper has changed.  We’re more likely to see a co-op seated at a keyboard than swinging a weed whip in the jungle that’s grown up behind the warehouse.  But, there are still dozens of great reasons for distributors to make use of students during their off time.

Here is my short list:
  • Reason 1:  Co-op programs give you an opportunity to learn about the next generation of worker.
  • If you distribute technical products, the co-op student is likely to be a customer in a few months.  Interaction helps you learn how they think.
  • Reason 2:  Co-op programs are a low cost ways to “interview” future workers.
  • You get to see a potential new employee’s work habits, ethics, and attitude over a multi-month period. while they get to sample your company’s culture.
  • Reason 3:  Co-op students have strong computer skills.
  • If you need data scrubbing, data entry or customer files updated, they can handle the work.
  • Reason 4:  Co-op students may also be qualified for other more technical tasks.
  • Need a blog set up, social media based content or customer research done, again you’d be surprised at the depth of skills available.
  • Reason 5:  Quality employees are hard to find.  Many of the students you hire may have never been exposed to the world of wholesale distribution.  They stumble into your place looking for summer work and march away knowing the value of our industry. 

A few tips for distributors with co-op…
Many people make the mistake of hiring co-ops without planning their work.  While I am not asking for direct supervision at all times, I believe a work plan should be developed.  This can include a number of departments; actually exposing the co-op to different groups does help them understand the business. 

I believe the following should be part of the plan:
  • A “go to” person who can answer questions and remove roadblocks in their efforts.
  • A set of tasks with instructions for how the task should be carried out and approximately what amount of time the task is expected to take.
  • A weekly meeting with a manager to review progress and answer questions which may not be directly related the assignment.  For example, the co-op might hear the term gross margin and not understand what it means or the importance of gross margin to the distribution industry.
  • A few well timed meetings with upper management.  Recalling, this young person may be a potential hire or a customer in a few months/years, I believe the time is well spent.
  • The ability to participate in training opportunities.  Supplier training, sales meetings and other events provide “big picture” insight to your business.

Companies like WarehouseTWO have a wonderful grasp of this concept and provide sample projects that are perfect for interns/co-ops.

Advice to the co-op student…
If you have a co-op or have a young friend who has taken a role at some other company, you may want to share the advice we have pushed out to a number of co-ops over the years.

Congratulations on landing a position at what I understand is a great company.  The things I recommend are elementary, please don't be offended.  I understand that you are coming into this position with a number of skills.  I totally believe you are intelligent, ready to work and probably have an educational head start in life.  I have given this advice to many and years later a good number have taken the time to confirm my thoughts.

With that, here are my words of wisdom:
  1. Always be at work 10 minutes early and ready to start promptly.  This is still valued by businesses.
  2. Never eat alone when given the opportunity to have lunch with co-workers.  Getting to know the people you work with on a personal and professional basis will serve you well in later life.
  3. If your group "socializes" after work, go.  Even if you only stay for a short time.  If alcohol is served and you are of legal age, feel free to drink.  But never more than two drinks.  Intoxication leads to dumb mistakes.  Dumb mistakes can set back your career.
  4. Don't be offended by "none technical" work.  Companies sometimes assign not-so-glamorous work to co-ops because nobody else wants it.  Working your way through the boring stuff will demonstrate your work ethic.
  5. Keep track of your accomplishments (on paper/computer.)   This is good for your resume and great for your ego.
  6. Be successful with the existing process before suggesting a new way.  It never hurts to understand how the existing process came into being.
  7. Establish a connection with everyone possible.  Create a personal file (I use MS Outlook, but I'm sure there is "an app for that") with the contact information and a few notes about the people you meet.  Logging some of the personal likes, dislikes, hobbies and other pertinent background information makes it easier to stay in touch later.
  8. Create connections with as many people as possible. LinkedIn is the Facebook of business.
  9. Never post criticisms or complaints about work on Facebook.  And, as soon as you read this, review your current Facebook posts.  Delete anything you wouldn’t want your boss or coworkers to see.
  10. Ask for a written review of your work at the end of the summer.
  11. When you get the review, never argue over the contents. It only makes you look petty.  Instead, ask for clarifications and pay attention to valid criticisms.
  12. Remember co-op programs are often just a 480 hour interviews.  Be professional, optimistic and resourceful.  At the same time, you owe it to yourself to be interviewing your employer.  Ask yourself, is this the right culture for my personality?  What department looks like the most fun? Would I want to spend 8-10 hours a day in this organization?
  13. Remember most people fail not because they lack technical skills, instead they fail due to poor interpersonal skills. 

With all this in mind, have a great summer.  And, if you are interested in learning more about the wholesale industry and distribution in general, feel free to join The Distributor Channel and don’t hesitate to reach out.  I would love to hear about your experience.

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