Tim Lyons of Brockway Smith addresses the opening day of the World Millwork Alliance convention.
Tim Lyons of Brockway Smith addresses the opening day of the World Millwork Alliance convention.

The World Millwork Alliance (WMA) opened its 52nd annual convention and trade show in Phoenix, Ariz., on Monday with a day of educational sessions that spanned technology, demographics, workplace safety and the housing market.

The first panel discussion covered customer service and technology efficiencies, and  the consensus was that software advances have revolutionized the millwork industry by speeding up production and making the entire process more transparent to customers.

“Warehouse management has certainly helped, but just the visibility of orders has been a huge change,” said Dan Schaefer of Woodware Systems, which makes software for the millwork industry. “We can have the order invoice, shipping ticket and receiving ticket all in one document, and they’re linked all together. That helps.”

Jonathan Bayer of Bayer Built Woodworks, a maker of doors and other millwork products, said technological advances have helped his customers in many ways.

“The electronic catalog makes the customer more self-sufficient,” he said. “We used to get a lot of faxes, but that’s shifting.”

“We still have customers that want to talk on the phone, but the generation coming up is changing that,” said Schaefer. “Point and click is one of the best ways to go.”

Brandon Barnes of Crown Heritage said his company’s computer front-end system, which has open access for customers, has greatly increased transparency across the supply chain.

“It’s been a unique tool that aids in customer service,” he said. “It’s actually been very well received. It took a little prodding, though. Some of those who you thought didn’t know how to open a laptop really took to it.”

All the panelists urged millwork companies to pay more attention to their websites.

“Put a solid investment in your website,” Barnes said. “Customers don’t want to have to figure out how to use your website. They want easy accessible icons. It’s got to have pretty pictures and enough information to get them to call.”

And don’t forget mobile websites, said Dan French of Brockway Smith.

“Everything has to be mobile-friendly today,” he said. “That’s a must.”

Safety: Are You Prepared?

Next, Terry Burkhalter of Willis Towers Watson discussed workplace safety. He covered topics ranging from disaster preparedness to an aging workforce.

He began by pointing out that it’s crucial to prepare for natural disasters such as hurricanes — not just for safety reasons but also for business continuity.

“Did you know that 43 percent of companies that experience a major disaster never reopen?” he said.

And while many workplaces have plans in place for all kinds of events, they’re not prepared for the most common incidents.

“Most people plan for all kinds of disasters and things such as terror attacks and active shooters, but they don’t prepare for serious injuries or fatalities at the workplace,” he said.

Burkhalter also discussed the labor shortage in the industry, noting that the loss of skilled employees and an aging workforce are problems for many reasons. For example, older workers increase the number of age-related injuries, mainly because they’re still the largest percentage of the workforce — and their numbers will only increase in the next few years, he said.

“Thirty percent of the workforce will be over 55 by 2020,” Burkhalter said. “Are you handling that? Are you prepared for that?”

Burkhalter cited a study showing that 100 percent of the most costly health claims were for employees over 36, and 85 percent of the mostly claims were for workers over 41.

He then displayed a chart of the most common injuries reported in the millwork industry. Shoulder injuries were No. 1, followed by injuries to backs, fingers, hands, arms, wrists, thumbs, knees and eyes. Most injuries are related to material handling, he said.

Minimizing risk is crucial, according to Burkhalter, who advised WMA attendees to put safety policies in place and make sure they’re followed. He also urged them to enforce those policies consistently — and document everything.

“A policy is not a policy until it is enforced,” said Burkhalter. “How can you prove that you’ve enforced your own guidelines? Proof is key. What gets measured gets improved.”

As for OSHA, Burkhalter said the organization now emphasizes employee interviews during investigations. Additionally, Burkhalter said the agency is more aggressive with its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), which concentrates on inspecting employers who have been in trouble multiple times.

Finally, in response to a question about active-shooter situations in the workplace, Burkhalter said it’s best to follow the standard training offered by police.

“Follow the run-hide-fight protocol,” he said.

Millennial Nation

Diane Thielfoldt, founder of The Learning Cafe, followed Burkhalter with a panel discussion on millennials in the workplace that featured four people from that age group who work in the millwork industry.

Thielfoldt said millennials are now largest and most influential group in the workplace, and they’re also the most diverse  — about 42 percent are minorities. Today, millennials represent more than a third of the population of the workforce. By 2020, they’ll be 50 percent, and by 2025, they’ll be 75 percent.

When it comes to workplace behavior, millennials are experience-hoppers, not job-hoppers, Thielfoldt said.

“They are looking for employability, not necessarily employment,” she said. “They want to build a portfolio of knowledge, skills and abilities.”

Millennials also prefer to work in teams and be collaborative, and they define a “good boss” as someone who stretches and challenges them.

The panelists offered ideas on how to attract millennials to the millwork industry. Like many others, it’s facing staffing challenges as older workers retire.

“When I was a little girl, I never said ‘I think I want to work in the millwork industry when I grow up,’” said Kelsie Murdock of Endura Products. ““The question shouldn’t be ’hey, do you like doors?’ It should be more like ‘we have an opportunity in this industry.’ That’s more of the selling point — the opportunity, not the door.”

Housing Market Update

Finally, Mark Boud, the chief economist for Hanley Wood/Metrostudy, updated WMA attendees on the state of the U.S. housing market.

“On average, we’re feeling good, but there are some dangers on the fringes,” he said.

Boud said the most significant driver of housing demand is job growth. During the past 12 months, the U.S. has created about 2.5 million jobs. Millennials are another factor that will increase housing production, because they’re going to be creating a lot of households in the next five years.

Mortgage rates are one factor that will help boost housing. They remain near all-time lows, Boud said.

“They’re currently 3.45 percent,” he said. “It’s an incredible anomaly. It’s really quite artificial. Interest rates will be going up. It’ll be gradual.”

As far as new home starts, Boud predicts that there will be 1.353 million by 2018. By way of comparison, at the height of the housing bubble in 2005, there were nearly 2.1 million housing starts. New home sales should hit 708,000 in 2018, well down from1.28 million in 2005, but more than double the 2011 low point of 306,000.

“It’s been a very slow recovery for the housing market,” he said, adding that labor shortages and higher costs for land are driving up home prices.

Remodeling activity is rising at a rate of about 4.2 percent each year, and will keep climbing through 2018, Boud said.

“As mortgage rates go up, people will increasingly want to stay in their homes,” he said.

The trade-show portion of the WMA convention begins today and runs through Wednesday. Stay tuned to DWM for updates.

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