It’s estimated that by 2025, three-quarters of the UK workforce will consist of ‘Generation Y’ or ‘millennials’ – people born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. Wholesaler Bidfood says that by 2020, half its workforce will be millennials. This generation will soon be at the forefront of influencing the ways in which we work and trade.

A quick Google search for ‘millennial’ conjures up countless articles alluding to the rise of the ‘digital native’, who demands the right to creative and flexible working environments. And it’s this close affinity with technology that sets this generation apart from those before it.

According to global accounting and professional services firm PWC’s paper, Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace, millennials tend to be uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures and are turned off by ‘information silos’ – that is, an insular management system based on vertical communication.

Instead, they expect rapid progression and a varied career. The paper notes that these characteristics – such as a desire to keep learning and a willingness to move on quickly if their expectations are not being met – requires a focused response from employers.

This could be a problem for the wholesale sector. “Wholesale conjures an image of a male-dominated, grubby warehouse, coupled with prehistoric values to match,” says Elit Rowland, founder of the Women in Wholesale initiative and director of New Era PR.

“People talk about the importance of technology and apps, but I think wholesale has a bigger issue – a people crisis.”

So, how can wholesale appeal to this generation and entice its brightest minds into the industry?

This article is designed to equip you with the solutions and confidence needed to attract the brightest millennial minds, and to arm you with the tools to portray the industry as one that offers exciting and inspiring career prospects.

A people crisis

Wholesale can sometimes be considered a ‘stepping stone’ into other careers, rather than the end goal itself. As a result, a big problem can be retaining staff.

Heather Angus, people and sustainability director at Bidfood, adds that it’s important that wholesale encourages fresh thinking and ideas to keep the industry up to date. “We also need to remember that millennials won’t only make up our workforce – they’ll be our customers of the future, too,” she cautions. “We need to understand their needs so that we can cater to them accordingly.”

Opportunity knocks

Providing internships, apprenticeships and other vocational opportunities is one way that wholesale can prevent this people crisis from gaining further momentum. Schemes such as these can prepare young talent for what is expected of them, set the foundation for their career and educate them about what the industry can offer.

“The shortage of skilled and enthusiastic people coming into the industry is a problem. If you ask 16-18-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, I don’t think you’ll find anyone saying they want to be a wholesaler,” says Amir Chaudhary, a director at Birmingham-based ethnic foods wholesaler Indus Foods.

In October, Indus Foods will roll out its first internships – a two-week programme for students attending two colleges and sixth forms in Birmingham. The main aim is to encourage students to look at wholesale as a viable career path and to redefine its image.

“We have them set up as competitive internships, so students must 

submit a proposal explaining why they should be chosen to work here,” Chaudhary says.

He adds: “The programme will be structured. As part of the initial induction, we will teach them the background of wholesale, and then offer them various tasks and shadowing opportunities in different departments.”

Chaudhary hopes that by the end of the internship, the interns will know what wholesale can offer. “We will set them a challenge at the beginning to come up with an idea that would change the business. If they come up with something good, we will implement it and show them the returns on that,” he adds.

Ben McKechnie, MD of wholesaler Epicurium, says that being based in out-of-city County Durham further magnifies the ‘people crisis’: “The best candidates want to be in London. Of those that don’t make the move, they tend to want to stick to the city – Newcastle – and seem to be reluctant to travel to us, as we are 30 minutes outside Newcastle.”

McKechnie says despite having increased salaries, recruiting new, young talent hasn’t “worked entirely”, but Epicurium is slowly getting better at it. He firmly believes, though, that millennials in particular are attracted to the culture of a company as much as the salary offered.

This is something echoed by Ben Towers, a 19-year-old tech entrepreneur praised by Virgin mogul Richard Branson for his business spirit. Towers says: “Salary is something which is considered and often one of the first things you look at, but after that, my generation looks into company culture and what growth the business offers. Gone are the days when people have one job for life, so it’s vital to make sure that when looking at a job, it offers what appeals to you right now.”

He adds: “Wholesale needs to show how big the sector is and emphasise the innovation and change that is happening. The biggest turn-off for my generation when applying for a job is lack of growth and excitement. Also, the sector needs to think about the wider appeal to the young person, and what extra perks and benefits they can offer them.”

Communicate your culture

If you give people a challenge that they’re passionate about, they usually thrive and develop with it. Progression then tends to stem from how to deal with that challenge if they don’t have the tools or the skillset to meet the targets that come with it.

David Visick, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ director of communications, says that cultivating the right culture starts with nurturing people as soon as they enter the industry: “Rather than pitching wholesale as a career, we have to demonstrate how the skills they have will be valued, developed and rewarded,” he notes. “We need digital pioneers, people with great interpersonal skills, negotiators and entrepreneurs.”

Wholesaler Brakes participates in the IGD’s ‘feeding Britain’s future’ programme, which brings the industry together and works with institutions to inspire the next generation. However, Kate Woodhouse, HR director at Brakes, says wholesale is an industry that “doesn’t shout about its success enough” and therefore, the mission to attract millennials is often “missing in action”.

She adds: “The industry is innovative, dynamic, fast-paced and broad – lots of the qualities that a millennial might seek in a prospective employer. The challenge with the public image of a wholesale foodservice company is that we don’t supply our food to the end consumer. While people might know the Brakes brand, they aren’t likely to know what we do in great detail.”

Focusing on internal progression is important at Brakes, as many employees begin as drivers or in the warehouse before working their way up to senior positions across the business.

“We offer graduate schemes and apprenticeships to encourage entrance into and development within Brakes,” Woodhouse says. “We have a finance graduate scheme and a supply chain & operations graduate scheme, both of which offer brilliant exposure across the business and encourage graduates to gain first-hand experience in different departments.

“We also offer opportunities that are open to individuals with or without university degrees – our driver apprenticeship scheme attracts new people into Brakes every year, and we support them to become fully qualified Cat C (Class 2) drivers.”

Social media savvy

Bidfood’s Angus says that the company has found that one of its major ‘pull factors’ for millennials has been its sustainability strategy. She points to charity work, managing food waste and local sourcing as some of the areas that Bidfood is seeing resonate with millennial employees.

In addition, Angus highlights the importance of embracing technology in many of its forms within your business.

“With technology constantly changing and an increase in the number of millennials coming into our workforce, I see us moving more towards looking to our younger generation for ideas and ways to better use technology in the future,” she says.

Social media is a huge part of technology and a vital way to attract Generation Y. Using various social media networks to illustrate opportunities can act as a smart way of advertising the business, as these are platforms that are relevant to and used by millennials.

Angus says: “Half of millennials now say a prospective employer’s online reputation matters as much as the job it offers. Young talent are eager to learn, make their mark and progress, so you can see expect to see determination and quick results. They have a strong understanding of technology, and we as a business need to keep our finger on its pulse as it rapidly improves.”

Elizabeth Bell, community affairs officer at AF Blakemore & Son, says that the wholesaler’s efforts in investing in graduate schemes have led to approximately 20 new graduates joining the business over the past three years. Its two-year graduate scheme was launched in 2015, with a growing focus on succession planning.

However, Bell notes that some of the difficulties Blakemore has encountered concern diversity: “Sales roles in parts of the country have not received as many applicants as anticipated, and a recent transport role received no female applicants at all,” she says.

To combat this, Bell stresses that the industry needs to emphasise to millennials the myriad career opportunities available under the wholesale umbrella and reiterate that these are not gender-specific. “The future is bright for wholesale and millennials need to know this,” Bell adds. 

A strong social media presence is a great way to recruit millennials

Millennial Viewpoints

“What attracted me was the diversity within the two-year programme, and getting involved with supply chain and operations. What I’m hoping to get out of the scheme is a great start and springboard to my career with a solid foundation. It’s a great opportunity to be starting in something with investment from the business itself.”

Joshua Guy, operations and supply chain graduate, Brakes

“It’s important to give our generation clear career paths. Show us the wealth of options on offer – from finance, buying and supply chain to IT, marketing and depot-management, wholesale really does have it all. Show millennials they aren’t limited and you might just find they stay longer than you expected.”

Josephine Hughes, senior contracts and tenders executive, Bidfood

“In wholesale, I have most enjoyed the people, being involved in different areas of the business and reaping the benefits of what I sow – I’ve been in projects that have really affected the business positively.”

Catherine Odukomaiya, operations and supply chain graduate, Brakes

“Food is a big part of my life, so that attracted me to Brakes. The fast-paced, challenging nature of the graduate programme was attractive. I also received an offer for the Amazon operations graduate programme, but I chose Brakes instead.”

Lewis Hume, operations and supply chain graduate, Brakes

The wholesale industry is very traditional, which has its positives and negatives. Although technology is definitely improving in the business, there are certain areas, especially in telesales, where elements of the job are still paper-based, which for my generation can be slightly frustrating at times. However, the upside of this is that I can offer my thoughts on how the environment I work in can improve and that I feel that my voice gets heard.”

Georgia Milborrow, telesales team leader, Bidfood

“One of the things I look forward to is not knowing what each day is going to bring. It’s not just any ordinary office job looking at spreadsheets – it’s spontaneous and challenging.”

Suhayl Ahmed, operations and supply chain graduate, Brakes

 

“My entry into wholesale is down to the AF Blakemore & Son graduate scheme. I didn’t have much of an idea about wholesale before taking the position, but it was the scale of the turnover that attracted me to join the business. As the sector becomes more digitally-enhanced, it will drive wholesale to be more competitive and this will naturally draw in more millennials. I think the greater challenge will be for wholesalers to keep hold of young talent, as the perception is that the opportunity for progression lies with the multiples or the brand owners. It is up to the wholesale sector to retain and develop millennials.”

Edward Cheadle,
regional account manager,
AF Blakemore & Son

Ben Towers’ top tips

  1. Demonstrate the growth opportunities for the individual

2. Show the size and changes happening in the industry and where millennials sit within this

3. Offer a wide range of perks outside of salary and work

4. Have a strong company culture and ethos that millennials can buy into

5. Be transparent with salary and expectations.

Industry Viewpoints

“We launched our London-based event The Fresh Careers Fair a few years ago to deal with a simple fact: the future of the fresh produce industry depends crucially on the ability to attract, develop and retain talent.

“Perhaps the biggest issue is how much wholesalers are willing to change the jobs they offer to attract employees. Produce wholesaling was traditionally night work, and many still hire on the assumption that the business has to run as it did in their grandfather’s day. But online ordering and more consistent grading of product are reducing the number of sales conducted traditionally. For innovative companies, this opens up the possibility of organising jobs differently.”

Jim Prevor, CEO,
Phoenix Media Network

“Millennials in the early stages of their careers will want companies to offer active support and development, with the opportunity to hone transferable skills that they can take into their next role – even if that’s at a different company. Long gone is the time where you might expect to be at one company for life, so businesses must work hard to hold onto great employees.”

Kate Woodhouse,
HR director, Brakes

“A quarter of our staff are currently aged 25 or under. We run a mentoring programme for our management trainees where all young people meet with their managers regularly to review their progress. This has been really important, as many of them expect consultative management as opposed to directorial styles.”

Julie Dunn, operations director, Dunns Food and Drinks

Bidfood’s top tips

  1. Be creative when designing the role – what are you going to offer that stands out?

2. Use social media – it’s the most effective way of reaching this target generation

3. Be part of the conversation by being active on social media and in the press

4. Showcase your business and demonstrate that you’re interested in the bigger picture

5. Help Generation Y to see the career opportunities and challenges you can offer by telling them how past millennials have progressed through the business.

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Priyanka Jethwa
Priyanka is a journalist for Better Wholesaling and reports on the latest from the industry, keeping wholesalers up to date on the most recent news.

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