Skip to main content

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 distribution specialist.

"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, billion-dollar corporations.

"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 customers."

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 and 1964.)

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:

  • Abrasives
  • Bearings
  • Cutting tools
  • Electrical equipment
  • Gearing
  • 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 manufacturers.

"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 is important.

"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
Training, events and more

Industrial Supply Association
A wealth of information about the industrial distribution industry

Industrial Careers Pathway
Explore career paths in industrial distribution

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.