Photo credit: Wesco International

Growing careers while growing the global supply chain


At supply-chain giant Wesco, supplying the firm’s personnel needs involves providing skills and opportunities to entry-level workers.

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The past few years have proven challenging for any company that relies on a smooth, predictable supply chain—which is to say, every company. But for Wesco International, whose business is the supply chain, the situation has been especially complex.

In January of 2020, the company announced the $4.5 billion acquisition of an equally sized competitor, Anixter, around the time that it also introduced a major digitalization initiative. This presented two personnel challenges: merging the cultures of former competitors, and developing and attracting talent to help modernize operations. Then, of course, the world shut down – except for essential businesses like Wesco.

Instead of hunkering down during the pandemic, Wesco—which distributes electrical, communications, and utility products and provides supply chain solutions and services around the globe—doubled-down on its existing efforts to expand opportunities for employees and recruits. It also implemented numerous policies geared toward bolstering retention, including raising wages, and diversifying the workforce. The combination of efforts helped earn the company the No. 12 rank overall as well as a spot among the 50 best workplaces for Career Growth on the 2022 American Opportunity Index, which measures how well the 250 largest U.S. public companies are doing at creating economic mobility for their workers. The Index draws on the real-world outcomes of employees in roles open to non-college graduates.

“The employees on our warehouse floor are critical to our business,” says Christine Wolf, the company’s chief human resources officer. “We wouldn’t exist without them.”

Leaders in the Career Growth model scored highly on three of the Index’s metrics: the percentage of entry-level employees at a given company relative to the total hires, the average time it takes entry-level employees to advance one level, and the number of promotions a typical worker received over the five-year period.

Nearly half of the Career Growth leaders are retailers—including Costco Wholesale, Starbucks, CVS Health, Gap, and Ross Stores—or have a retail component, such as AT&T, UPS, and Verizon Communications. This makes sense. Retailers tend to have an extensive footprint and relatively high turnover, which provides entry-level workers who decide to turn an entry level position into a career the opportunity for fast advancement. When it comes to wholesalers, however, Wesco is unique.

Once entry-level employees prove their aptitude, Wesco actively exposes them to less obvious opportunities. While the path from a warehouse employee to a supervisor, for example, is somewhat apparent, the company entices workers with lateral pathways as a way to increase their skills.

It’s logical that a global distribution firm would provide lots of entry-level opportunity. Wesco employs thousands of warehouse laborers and operations specialists—positions with no obvious need for higher education or even previous experience. With few exceptions, the company filters for people who work well with others and can serve both suppliers and customers. “Succeeding here really requires people to cooperate,” Wolf says. “That’s the only way to ensure that we are able to deliver on time and with all the right materials, particularly given the challenges in the supply chain right now.”

Once entry-level employees prove their aptitude, Wesco actively exposes them to less obvious opportunities. While the path from a warehouse employee to a supervisor, for example, is somewhat apparent, the company entices workers with lateral pathways as a way to increase their skills. “If they’re starting out in a position like a warehouse operator, they don’t necessarily understand how the different parts of the business really fit together and how they work,” Wolf says. “So that takes a lot of education.”

To that end, Wolf’s team is developing a suite of online tools that map various career paths, highlighting available jobs and the associated skill sets, across departments. “We’re trying to be very transparent about requirements and prescribing the best actions, whether that’s skills development, outside education, or on-the-job training,” she says. “And we have a tuition-reimbursement program that we encourage them to take advantage of.”

Wesco is also exploring ways to bring in entry-level employees at higher rungs in the organization. It’s considering reducing education requirements for positions that have traditionally required four-year college degrees, and it’s testing a program with community colleges to incorporate graduates who’ve earned a two-year associates degrees.

While Wesco has managed to navigate the challenges of a merger, digitization, and the pandemic, Wolf knows the challenges aren’t over. These days, the so-called Great Resignation is top of mind. The company recently boosted its compensation structure to increase retention, but she knows that’s just a small part of the equation.

“I’m very focused on turnover rates. What can we do to reduce those numbers?” she says. “Someone can always find a job for 25 cents more somewhere else. We think retention comes down to cultural aspects—the way we’re treating people.”

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