Inside Logistics

Roundtable: The war for talent

We gathered a group with deep backgrounds in logistics, recruitment and industry associations to share their insight into the scope of the problem as well as some of the strategies companies can use to become employers of choice.


February 26, 2019
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Logistics businesses, like many others, face an unprecedented challenge finding enough staff to get work done. The problem exists from the C-suite right down to entry-level positions, and there’s little sign on relief on the horizon.

That’s what prompted us to convene our logistics leadership roundtable. Together, Inside Logistics and our sister publication Canadian Shipper gathered a group with deep backgrounds in logistics, recruitment and industry associations to share their insight into the scope of the problem as well as some of the strategies companies can use to become employers of choice.

Our panelists were: Pat Campbell, vice-president, strategic initiatives, SCMA; Douglas Harrison, former president and CEO of VersaCold Logistics Services; Paul Kurrat, director of operations at Global Warehousing & Distribution; Pina Melchionna, president and CEO of CITT; and Ross Reimer, president of Reimer Associates. Here’s the result of the conversation.

Scope of the problem

We asked the panel to first identify what they see as the most pressing human resources challenges going into 2019. The talent shortage was quickly identified as the top issue facing logistics employers.

Pat Campbell, vice-president, strategic initiatives, SCMA

But panelists expanded on the notion, citing the factors that are contributing to it. Pat Campbell said her members are highlighting an inability to find well-rounded workers. People have either management skills or technical skills but not enough have both, she said. Pina Melchionna echoed this, attributing some of the problem to the demographic shift as aging baby boomers leave the workforce. She also noted that with growing reliance on technology, skills have not kept pace.

Paul Kurrat noted that retention is becoming much more troublesome than it was in the past. “ As soon as we do find someone, keeping them has become a different type of challenge than what we’re used to,” he said.

Douglas Harrison, former president and CEO of VersaCold Logistics Services

Douglas Harrison looked at the effect the talent shortage will have. He expects it will constrain the economy and “constrain growth inside organizations. We’ll have to really think of innovative ways of using technologies or automation, and how do we find those employees as the western world ages, and we’re looking for people to backfill those critical roles.”

Ross Reimer said the answer may be to cast the net wider. “The supply chain world has to go outside of supply chain,” he said. “I think we have to be very aggressive on marketing our industry outside of the current borders we work within, and most of the folks I work with are resistant to that for obvious reasons. It takes time to train, it takes more ramp-up time, but ultimately we’ve got to bring more people to this huge industry; we need more top talent.”

What’s changed?

Numerous factors are contributing to the talent shortage and HR challenges in logistics. The panel sought to highlight some of the biggest shifts that are impacting employment today. Succinctly, it’s pretty much everything. From the way people perceive work and how they want to do it, to the education and training available, to demographics, to the type of work and its pace and the changing skillsets required to succeed, it’s a whole new landscape.

Ross Reimer, president of Reimer Associates

Technology is partially fueling the changes, as e-commerce takes increasing control over the way we do business. Reimer noted that the explosion of home delivery has exacerbated the driver shortage, while Harrison identified technological skills as a huge gap area. “We’re looking for a different type of employee today,” he said, but they just don’t exist.

Campbell noted that this is partly because while supply chain education is booming, institutions are having trouble keeping pace with the knowledge the industry needs.

Another important factor, Kurrat pointed out, is the differing attitudes of the younger generation of workers. Thanks partly to a 20-year push to get more post-secondary workers into the field, many entry-level candidates don’t want to do entry-level work, he said. Likewise, “higher-pressure, higher-velocity warehousing – I don’t know that that’s still an interest for them, and 40- to 60-hour work weeks, we’re finding for sure are out.”

Developing talent

We asked the panel to talk about solutions, practical ideas that the industry as a whole, along with individual employers and workers themselves can adopt to address employment challenges.

The first area we discussed was developing talent. Further to the skills gap noted above, Campbell said there needs to be a partnership between employers and educators. We need “more opportunities to engage students, perhaps earlier in internships, or work placements, so that they get the balance of skills, and get introduced to the new technology.”

Pina Melchionna, president and CEO of CITT

Melchionna concurred: “Our challenge is to make sure we’re working with colleges and universities, because they are definitely teaching the theoretical, and the table-stake skills that people need, but they don’t necessarily have the practical requirements.” Graduates must have “the appropriate combination of both theoretical as well as practical skills that the industry requires,” she said.

“We’ve got to think differently about how we work with colleges, universities,” Harrison asserted. “No matter what government, and colleges and educational bodies will always be laggards. They will always come out late in the race of where talent needs to go.”

Melchionna agreed, saying that employers can work to develop fit in order to expand the talent pool. “Rather than hire for a specific skill set that you’re looking for, hire a person with the right attitude, the right cultural fit for an organization, and then reach out to organizations that can train the skill set that they need,” she said.

Kurrat recounted work he’s been doing to help give “marginalized” people the skills they need to meet very specific skill sets for logistics employers. “It’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen [where] industry has finally said that we can’t find enough of this, so what can we do?” he noted.

Harrison stressed the importance of employees taking responsibility for their own development. In the context of shorter work tenures, “the reality is a lot of that investment in learning continuous improvement and development really has to be undertaken by the employee,” because the employer just cannot or will not commit to someone who may not stick around. The company’s role, he added, is to provide the basics to allow a new employee to be successful.

Looking outside the box

Along with developing talent, the panel agreed that the industry needs to look beyond its traditional pool to find new blood. That means marketing, and making a sector that in the past was not a destination but more of an accidental career into one that offers a desirable career path.

Supply chain suffers from a branding issue, Melchionna noted. “As an industry, we need to promote and market the industry as a designated profession to go into,” she said. The industry needs to make use of facts like Amazon being one of the most trusted brands in the world now and that it’s a supply chain and logistics company. “We have to start telling more of those stories to attract that new demographic to the profession,” she urged.

“We have to walk across the hall to the marketing department,” Reimer said. He noted that a couple of his clients now incentivize recruiters to bring on new people. “It’s no longer looking at the 15 applicants and tossing them out, it’s saying we don’t have 50 applicants, now we have to sell,” he shared.

One group that’s doing this well, Reimer said, is the Ontario Trucking Association and its Next Generation Leadership Program. It focuses on the millennial age group, and sells them on the industry.

Campbell talked about opening pathways for people with non-traditional backgrounds to enter supply chain employment. She says SCMA is looking for ways to identify transferrable skills that retirees or newcomers to Canada might have, and to get rid of rigid requirements, but without undermining the strength of the professional designation.

“Sometimes the number of years that you’ve worked in the industry or the background education that you’ve come with aren’t reflective of the competencies that you need today, and more importantly aren’t reflective of the competencies you need five years from now,” Melchionna agreed. “I think it’s absolutely right that employers demand of their associations that we, as well, change with the times and start to reflect the changing requirements of talent in the industry.”

As an example, Campbell noted that many veterans of the military are highly trained and successful logisticians, yet they have trouble finding work after retirement. Harrison said in his work he has looked for them: “Over 20 years in this business, I now look specifically with an extra interest to a former military career…They come with spectacular training, and whether they are a little closer to the end of their career, there’s all kinds of value there.”

On the menu

Paul Kurrat, director of operations at Global Warehousing & Distribution

In today’s demographic environment employers need to recognize that workers no longer fit into a mold. Kurrat pointed out that there is a whole new group of people who are not fitting in to the Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-4 workplace. “How do you take somebody for two days a week, or how do you take somebody for four hours over five days a week, because they have a family to look after?” he said. By considering different work options employers open themselves up to new groups of potential workers.

Harrison agreed. “You have to offer a menu,” he said, noting it’s the employee’s market right now; they can call the shots. “The starting point is what does that particular employee want? How do I tailor that career for that individual to allow them to enjoy that role? I think about it as a menu of items of, here’s what’s important to this person, how do I craft something to make that role meaningful to what they really desire?” he said.

The panel went on to identify some of the ‘menu items’ that employers need to offer. Reimer highlighted working from home, noting; “You can say to a person, ‘you can work from home two days a week’. That’s actually on the menu of compensation.” Prospective hires actually will do the math, he said, and quickly realize that working from home is like getting a raise because of the savings in commuting and so on.

Melchionna added professional development to the menu items. Research links “professional development and investment in employees with increased engagement with increased retention,” she noted. Employers need “to start thinking differently about total compensation packages and ensure that they’re including some investment in terms of professional development and learning in their employees.”

A final word

To close out the conversation, we asked each panelist for his or her takeaway from the conversation. In their words:

Paul Kurrat: “As we’ve said over and over, you’re investing in the employee, but as an individual seeing more to their needs and balancing that with the needs of the company. It’s that balancing that all of us have to get really used to, and fast.”

Pat Campbell: “We need to change the dialogue. We need to talk about the advantage supply chain brings to our country from an economic perspective. Whether it’s the employee, the company, post-secondary education, or our governments, we need to work with them around how do we build the kinds of programs that will encourage people to see the value that an occupation in supply chain can offer them.”

Pina Melchionna: “Invest in your people. It results in a win-win for both the company as well as the employee. [You get] increased engagement and retention and loyalty from the employee, and from an employer perspective, if you’ve got good talent you want to keep that good talent. Invest in them as the skill-set changes so that you keep them long term.”

Ross Reimer: “In the recruiting business, our work is facilitated by working with clients that have spent serious time and investment on building leadership, and a reason for people to be there. Secondly they’ve taken recruiting seriously and invested in selling and marketing their business like they market their product. They take it just as seriously. I think that 20, 30, 40 years ago you didn’t have to do that and in the new world, if you’re going to survive and prosper your going to have to do that.”

Douglas Harrison: “Canadian companies, especially, are still learning the opportunities that supply chain and logistics bring in terms of competitive advantage. I think the more companies start realizing that, the more we’ll create interest in their sector and career opportunities and growth opportunities. There’s absolutely a war for talent. If you’re going to be a leader in your field you’re going to produce above average returns, above average customer satisfaction. It will come through above-average employee engagement and being able to attract talent and to be able to think about how you leverage that talent as we go through the next decade.”