The talent shortage is real, and one local company is working to solve it with a training program that turns employees into leaders.
UFP Industries, a Grand Rapids-based holding company whose subsidiaries supply wood, wood composite and other products to the retail, construction and industrial markets, in 2016 quietly launched the UFP Business School, which this summer will be graduating its fourth cohort of students.
The program offers internal and external applicants who have a high school diploma or GED the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in business administration in just two years, blending on-the-job and classroom experience taught by instructors who are UFP employees and executives. The program is free to students and funded in part by sponsors and the rest by UFP.
Ann Baker, a UFP employee since 2019, became dean of the program in October. She came to UFP Industries after an 11-year career as a school counselor in Pennsylvania. The districts she worked for offered career and technical centers for their high school students, so Baker found herself counseling young people who were developing a passion for the skilled trades and industrial careers rather than going on to earn traditional four-year degrees. She and her husband relocated to Grand Rapids after her retirement from secondary education, and she said while she couldn’t have foreseen the direction her career would take, UFP Industries and the opportunity to steer the UFP Business School ended up being an exciting twist of fate.
She said back in 2016, UFP CEO Matt Missad was looking for a way to invest in his people at a new level.
“He started realizing that this was a (way) to really be able to give opportunities to people that might not always have them,” Baker said. “And by having this be a full scholarship, which also includes a company laptop, books and your education, it really is something that’s making a change for a lot of individuals.”
UFP Business School — which runs year-round except for breaks and holidays — launches a new two-year cohort every year. While it started out small, graduating nine students in 2018, four in 2019 and four in 2020, for a total of 17, this year saw a big jump in enrollment, with 14 students set to graduate in August and a new cohort ready to launch in September.
The program includes a total of 30 business classes covering topics such as math, communications, employment law, risk management, leadership and entrepreneurship. The spring term includes a six-week paid internship at UFP plants across North America, where students learn the operations management side of the business.
Classroom learning happens through a mix of virtual and in-person, depending on where the students are located, and the company flies the out-of-state students to Grand Rapids for graduation and networking each summer. So far, the program has enrolled students working at UFP locations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Mexico.
Students who are located in Grand Rapids where UFP’s headquarters are based have the opportunity to spend a term in any of the corporate departments, such as human resources, credit or product development, then they can do their six-week internship at any plant in North America.
Baker said the opportunity for students to learn from current employees and apply the education immediately is priceless.
“You are learning directly from people who live what they teach,” she said. “Who better to learn entrepreneurship from than our CEO Matt Missad? Who better to learn employment law from than Ingrid Shane, our director of employment practices? Risk management is actually taught by one of our lawyers, Joe Celello. … Everyone that takes on these classes has that every day, real-world application that they can come with those examples and really be able to give it back to our current students. And then, the best part is our current students can take that information and go back and improve their roles at their plants that they’re at, so it’s instantaneous.”
While Baker said there is no set-in-stone expectation that students who go through the program will stay on for a certain length of time at UFP Industries, most of the students do stay because they become “part of the family.”
“One of the things that we’re really doing is we’re giving them this opportunity to have them succeed and succeed in a company they already know, and we’re really helping them achieve that balance, too,” she said. “Some of our students in the program have family, they have a life, they are working full time, and our program, because we offer it during the workday … they’re not losing that life balance. They get to go to their kids’ games. They’re not just sitting in a classroom; they’re really able to prioritize and still be able to do our program, to work a full-time job and still maintain the relationships with their friends, family and outside-of-work life.”
Baker said students can be coming from any background at UFP or externally — whether they drive trucks, build trusses, operate a saw, or have some management experience already — and the program helps those with “grit and determination” succeed at whatever future goals they may have.
One student, Molly Johnson, is a native of Chicago who went through the program in Grand Rapids; graduated in 2019; moved to a UFP location in Saginaw, Texas; and became a sales trainee, then an inside sales coordinator, and now she is working toward becoming an account manager.
Jordan Smith, who is from the Grand Rapids area, started in the inaugural class in 2016 straight out of high school, graduated in 2018, and has lived and worked at UFP locations in Wisconsin and Oregon as a field specialist and a customer service rep and now is a product champion in Wisconsin.
A current student is enrolled in North Carolina, and in addition to her day job and her training classes, she is a competitive meat smoker on the side and recently sent Baker a photo of a prize-winning smoked pig.
Another current student, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Virginia, works at a recently acquired UFP location, where he is enrolled in the business school. In light of how hard it can be to transition to civilian life after a military career, he told Baker recently, “I’m not sure what would have happened if I didn’t find this company. One day, I want to make a difference to UFP.”
Baker said UFP is excited to see what its business school alumni will continue to do with their education.
“Our ultimate goal is to always have our students graduate from our program armed with that education and experience that they need to move their career forward. We’re investing in people because that’s our greatest asset, is our people. And I can say that our hardworking students, we’re just really hoping that they take that education and knowledge and experience and that they’re able to really propel to the next higher level, whatever that is for them,” she said.
More information about the program is at ufpbusinessschool.com.