The logistics industry likes to think that it has a labor shortage, but it really has a people problem.
At warehouses around the country right now, you can find signs promising $15 an hour or more. Employers are offering generous compensation packages, including better healthcare and tuition for schooling. But while some of this is helping to attract workers, it’s mostly throwing money at a problem that has much deeper roots. These measures are stopgaps and will not address the long-term, structural issues facing the industry.
If we’re being completely honest, in most warehouses and other facilities, employees have traditionally been a commodity. Working in one has almost always been a job, not a career. The industry itself tends to think of employees as something you can load and offload as necessary to meet pressing needs. To get through the fall, staff up, increase overtime, then let unnecessary people go.
The Great Resignation flipped that on its head. More and more warehouses are scrambling for employees. It’s not even all that unusual to have new hires show up and then decide a few hours later that the job is not for them. It’s an employees’ job market, and warehouse positions are plentiful. Suddenly, retaining your people has become not merely an important competitive advantage but also a necessity.
Confession: I’ve long worked at a facility that has had a good reputation with employees. One of the ways we’ve tried to build a competitive advantage is by keeping a larger number of our employees around longer. This was a conscious policy based around a simple principle: meeting employees where they are. That doesn’t mean offering financial incentives or educational opportunities; it means understanding who they are as people, where they are in life, and what they truly need to achieve their goals.
Let me explain what I mean.
Transparency matters. When the pandemic hit, and people began working from home, the warehouse industry found itself at a distinct disadvantage. You can’t simply deliver a pallet of goods to someone’s door and say, “load this up.” The work must be done in person. As a result, it has been vital to communicate, as openly and transparently as possible, what the recommendations are for a safe working environment. Whether that’s distancing, masks or vaccinations, it’s important to make it clear that you’re doing as much as possible to keep people safe and comfortable.
It’s easy to make accommodations. There’s no way around it: warehouse work is tough. People are on their feet from eight to 10 hours a day, more if they’re working overtime. While some in the industry discourage workers from sitting or taking breaks, it’s important to maximize your employees’ comfort to the degree that you can. That includes offering seating if possible, and making sure everyone has ample and convenient break time to keep productivity up.
Data is a great guide. Logistics companies rely on extensive metrics to keep productivity high. But they can also be used more intelligently than in the past. Certainly, workers should be aware of whether or not they’re meeting expectations, but we can also balance accommodations and other perks with that data. It’s important to know how changes in the warehouse affect productivity. The flipside of this is not to become married to logical arguments that aren’t reflected in data. While many in the industry believe in taking a demanding stance with employees, data doesn’t always validate this as a productive approach.
Enrichment makes sense. Right now, many warehouses are offering tuition credits to workers as a form of enrichment. But it’s important to recognize that this might not be an incentive for many people. Instead, the industry should look at the huge range of educational and personal enrichment programs that might be more useful to people in their daily lives. At our facilities, for example, we’ve brought in mortgage counselors and money managers to help people deal with those aspects of their lives. We’ve also implemented programs such as Learn Six Sigma to help employees improve in every aspect of their lives, both at work and at home.
We must meet people where they are. With the pandemic, people are facing unprecedented levels of stress. They have to be chauffeurs for their kids, shopping assistants for their parents, and overall caregivers for their families. And that’s in addition to the usual pressures of life that come in many forms. Simply listening to people and being more flexible about scheduling can make an enormous difference. It’s much better to have someone who comes in 80% of the time and gives 100% effort than someone who reached a crisis point and then decided they could no longer come to work.
It’s time to start thinking of warehouse work as a marathon rather than a sprint. We have to stop obsessing about getting through “this season” or “that rush.” Instead, we need to do what other industries have long done: build a business with a reputation for attracting and retaining employees long-term. The industry has responded to the present labor crisis in a predictable but ultimately unsustainable way that doesn’t address its real causes. Perhaps a greater opportunity lies in looking inward, and seeing how we can attract people for the quality of the work environment rather than the level of compensation.
Brian Birch is chief supply chain officer with Netrush.
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