The supply chain needs people. Desperately.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened a crisis that was well advanced before the virus struck. Multiple stages of the global supply chain, including manufacturing, distribution, warehousing and trucking, are suffering from a severe shortage of qualified workers.
So, too, are many other industries, at a time when flocks of people seem to have vanished from the job market. Reasons include lingering fears of a disease that’s still rampant in many parts of the country, and attendant problems such as lack of childcare and unresolved questions around in-person schooling. But the supply chain has been hit especially hard, with droves of prospective workers declining to take on jobs they deem to be too strenuous, boring or poorly compensated.
“The talent shortage is everywhere,” says Abe Eshkenazi, chief executive officer of the Association for Supply Chain Management. ASCM recently released its 2021 Supply Chain Salary and Career Report, and the findings reveal an odd contradiction. They paint a picture of an industry with stellar opportunities, including a median salary for supply chain professionals of $86,000, 38% above the national number, and a typical starting salary for industry newcomers of $60,000. The survey finds 81% of respondents satisfied with their benefits packages, and nearly 70% receiving paid maternity, paternity and medical leave.
What’s more, the doors are open to those wish to pass through. Around a third of respondents to the ASCM survey said they found employment in the industry in less than a month, with more than half getting work within three months.
So where’s the disconnect? For starters, the term “supply chain” can describe a broad range of jobs, from truck driver and warehouse worker to high-paid senior executive. “There’s no job called ‘supply chain,’ notes Eshkenazi. “It’s planning, sourcing, manufacturing, delivery and a variety of other functions — it’s not well-defined.” The universe of supply-chain jobs can encompass everything from a minimum-wage worker to a professional pulling down a six-figure salary.
Each stage of the supply chain faces its own set of unique challenges in attracting and retaining talent. But the labor shortage is especially acute for physical jobs such as driving, the production line and warehouse work. And in some of those areas, Eshkenazi believes, at least part of the problem can be chalked up to misperception.
Manufacturing, for example, continues to bear the age-old image of dirty, noisy factories filled with workers laboring over non-stop conveyors. The truth is that much plant work today is automated, with robots performing the most strenuous and tedious tasks. The same is true for a growing number of warehouses, where mobile robots zip around the aisles and significantly reduce human travel time and physical exertion.
One area of the supply chain that awaits relief by automation — despite overly sunny predictions by industry technologists — is truck driving. With the exception of certain designated routes, completely autonomous vehicles are still many years in the future. In the meantime, logistics providers will continue to grapple with a driver shortage that’s been in evidence for years, and only promises to get worse as the demand for consumer goods grows.
The good news on the supply-chain employment scene, according to the ASCM report, is greater diversity among the professional workforce. “The gender gap is narrowing,” Eshkenazi says, with women under 40 earning a median salary of $81,000, versus $79,000 for their male counterparts. Supply chain organizations are willing to pay more to meet announced diversity goals, even if fewer than half are publicly reporting the impact of such efforts on their organizations.
For all the talk of how the general public over the last year and a half has come to understand what a supply chain entails — at least when it involves shortages of toilet paper and other essential goods — “there still isn’t a real clear understanding of the role and responsibility it has,” Eshkenazi says. More education about the industry’s critical place in the economy is needed. With it could come a greater awareness among young people about the possibilities that a career in supply chain offers.
As for employers, they’re looking for job candidates with real-world experience (acquired in part from internships), critical thinking (avoiding an excessive emphasis on technology), and proof of competency through industry certification.
Technology promises to bring about “huge transformation” in the industry, Eshkenazi says, “but we’ve got to make sure we have competent employees who can understand that data and use it make informed decisions.”
The supply chain has always needed a steady flow of candidates of the highest quality, he adds, “but there’s no more critical time [for that] than where we’re sitting today.”
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