Find Your Place in the Industrial Distribution Chain
You're about to be let in on a secret. A very, very big secret.
There's an industry full of interesting, well-paying jobs, but few
people outside of the industry even realize these job opportunities exist.
As a result, many employers can't find enough candidates.
The industry is industrial distribution, or ID. This industry employs more
than 3.3 million people in every state and province across the United States
and Canada. That's according to Industrial Careers Pathway, a partnership
of trade associations serving the industrial distribution industry.
"We've called it the secret industry," says Bill Wade. He's an industrial
"If you went up to the average person and said, 'Tell me what you know
about distribution,' they'd look at you with a blank stare, but they wouldn't
be able to clothe themselves or get food, couldn't build a house, couldn't
have a car, couldn't even fuel a car without distribution."
Industrial distributors provide parts, products and services to industrial
users. They are involved in the wholesaling and distribution of technological
products. Their customers are other businesses, not the general public.
Employees in this industry have a combination of technical, business and
people skills. Industrial distribution specialists use many fields of knowledge:
math, science, business, engineering, communications and quality control,
to name just a few.
There are more than 100,000 industrial distribution companies throughout
North America.They contribute almost six percent to the U.S. and Canadian
gross national product (the amount of goods and services in a country). Some
of these companies are small, local businesses. Others are international,
"The breadth of the industry is spectacular," says Wade. "The biggest hindrance
to growth is a shortage of people to manage and staff that growth."
Industrial distribution specialists work for companies such as construction
contractors, chemical companies and materials processors. They also work for
the wholesale distributors that provide products and services to these companies.
Here's how Industrial Careers Pathway describes opportunities in this field:
"Not only are there millions of jobs in industrial distribution,
these jobs offer interesting challenges, competitive pay, safe and stable
working conditions and countless career paths. And more than one million of
those jobs are in business-to-business sales positions -- providing solutions,
building relationships, offering products and valuable services to industrial
Michel Bouchard is an industrial distribution specialist focused on business-to-business
sales. He's vice-president in charge of international sales for an ID company
that sells bearings and other industrial parts.
"I do think there's an incredible opening, because of the baby boomers
retiring," says Bouchard. "In the next 10 to 15 years we're probably going
to turn over half of our staff." (Baby boomers are people born between 1946
Bouchard works for a company that his grandfather started in 1946. "I
remember him flying in bearings from Japan for the local paper mills, and
I was just fascinated by that," says Bouchard. "Across the industry, there's
24-hour service. When things break down, you get a call. Back then the paper
mills would call our house at 3 a.m. The mill manager would apologize. They
would get up and sort everything out."
Being there for people when things go wrong continues to be what Bouchard
enjoys most about his work.
"When a bearing breaks or a gear box breaks, all [workers] hear is a loud
noise and their machine stops working and... they call here, and they're often
blown away that people know the problem they have and can solve it right away."
When parts break down, companies can lose thousands of dollars an hour
while waiting for a replacement part. An industrial distribution specialist
will make sure the right part arrives as quickly as possible, tracking it
every step of the way, often across international borders. Here are just a
few examples of the products sold by industrial distributors:
- Cutting tools
- Electrical equipment
- Machining tools
- Mechanical drivers
"There's a big initiative with the associations to recruit young talent
and market to teenagers to show them this is a possibility, because not a
lot of people wake up and decide they want to be an industrial distribution
specialist," says Bouchard.
To get into the field, you need business and technical skills. Many ID
specialists have an engineering degree. Others have a business or finance
background. Ideally, you would earn a degree specifically in industrial distribution
-- this would cover both the technical and business sides of the industry.
The University of Nebraska Kearney (UNK) offers a four-year degree in industrial
distribution. The mission of the program is to prepare students for technical
sales positions and future leadership roles with wholesale distributors and
manufacturers of industrial products.
"Engineers can't sell, and business people don't know technical industrial
products-- so this program was designed to be a hybrid program covering both
business and technical skills,," says Richard Meznarich. He's a professor
of industrial distribution at UNK.
"We've been here 21 years, and for the most part we boast over 95 percent
placement, and it's been that way from the inception of the program," he says.
"I would say 70 percent of our graduates will go to work for a distributorship
and 30 percent go to work for a manufacturer."
There are also large ID programs at the University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M,
University of Alabama, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and Ohio State.
University programs in industrial distribution can be divided into two
camps, Meznarich explains. "Many ID programs have as their prime focus supply-chain
logistics management," he says. "[The UNK ID program is] different
-- we're solely focused on sales. We want our graduates to service the client
as technical sales reps, solve their problems."
UNK has detailed info on its ID graduates. On average, 50 students graduate
from the program each year. "The demand is far greater than 50 [graduates],
and we are one of the largest programs in the nation," says Meznarich. "There's
a huge demand nationwide, and there are very few schools that have four-year
industrial distribution programs."
Over the past five years, 30 percent of graduates had a starting annual
salary of $35,000 (plus or minus $5,000). Twenty percent earned $40,000 (plus
or minus $5,000), while five percent earned more than $60,000.
The majority of graduates enjoy a good work/life balance. Sixty-five percent
of graduates over the past five years reported working 40 to 50 hours a week.
Graduates end up in companies of all sizes, including billion-dollar industrial
"It varies all over the map, from the small to the gigantic," says Meznarich.
"I'd say probably 70 percent will go to work for a distributorship and 30
to 35 percent to a manufacturer.
"Very few students go straight into a master's degree program because
virtually all UNK ID students are employed either immediately upon graduation
or within two months following graduation," says Meznarich.
Most of those earning a master's degree are employed. They work on their
degree at the same time as they move into management, to become a branch manager.
Those in upper management with industrial manufacturers might have a master's
degree in mechanical engineering along with an MBA.
More men than women work in industrial distribution. However, women who
enter the field often do very well. "It's a male-dominated industry," admits
Meznarich. "We've had as high as 23 percent female (in the UNK program). We're
probably in the high teens right now. As a group, the females tend to do better
-- they tend to get more job offers and tend to get higher salaries."
Bill Wade is an industrial distribution specialist on the supply-chain,
logistics management side of the industry. He says some training in business
"I would say anything that is broad in terms of just general economics,"
says Wade. "A broad business understanding is what you need because, at the
end of the day, a lot of distribution is still a relationship business."
Wade says a bachelor's degree in those areas is helpful, but people with
less education can also build careers in ID. "Most of the community colleges
offer something about supply chain or distribution logistics," says Wade.
"It doesn't take much just to [learn] enough to get in. You're going to learn
more about the business doing it than reading about it.
"There's a lot of room at the entry level, and because so much of it's
specific to the company or the industry, you're going to learn it as you do
it," Wade adds. "The all-time entry-level job would just be as a receiving
clerk, or you might be an inventory handling clerk, maybe a purchasing assistant,
you might be a delivery [person]."
Wade got into industrial distribution largely because his father worked
in the industry. His father published magazines about ID. "I started out
wanting to be an editor or publisher," says Wade. "That didn't work out, so
I went to a manufacturer who supplied distributors. I got fascinated by it."
American Supply Association
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Industrial Supply Association
A wealth of information about the industrial distribution industry
Industrial Careers Pathway
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