Editor’s note: The following column by Eric Allais, president and CEO, PathGuide Technologies, is part of Modern’sOther Voices column, a series featuring ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.
Hiring managers for warehouses and distribution centers will be the first to tell you that recruiting and retaining warehouse workers is harder than ever thanks to unemployment rates hovering at 50-year lows. According to a recent survey by Statistica, half of warehouse operations managers identified the inability to attract and retain a qualified hourly workforce as their biggest challenge.
Increasing fulfillment demands from the eCommerce boom are creating an extremely tight warehouse labor market. What’s more, a recent study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that warehouse workers suffer work-related injuries at nearly twice the rate of other private industry workers, including those in some of the most dangerous industries like coal mining and construction.
If the headlines bear out, automation will begin replacing warehouse workers. Two years ago, when leading Chinese eCommerce platform JD.com introduced the world’s first fully automated warehouse in Shanghai, many wondered if we are heading towards a future of human-less, “dark” warehouses. If this is our destiny, does the warehouse worker soon become obsolete?
Maybe. But not anytime soon, at least according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center study. Instead of automation displacing workers, their research concludes that “aggregate employment levels in the warehousing industry will likely continue to rise over the next five to 10 years.”
It’s with these challenges in mind that we’ll explore the changing role of the warehouse worker in this article, examining what’s happening to the work and what can be done about it.
Automation is only partially the answer While more and more supply chain players are adopting automation solutions, the labor shortage can’t be solved with these technologies alone. Automation is only partially the answer. The reason? It can be a sizable investment, and companies simply can’t retool quickly enough. The UC Berkeley Labor Center’s report notes that at least one-third of distributors in the U.S. do not have warehouse management systems (WMS) in place. For those companies still relying on pen and paper – or even Excel spreadsheets – to manage warehouse operations, automation isn’t even on their radar.
Not only are eCommerce fulfillment demands causing an increase in volume requirements, they are also creating greater variability in order profiles and picking types. This means unique human capabilities, such as dexterity, are still crucial to the picking process. For recruiters looking to hire warehouse talent, it’s a complex equation to solve:
High Demand + Low Availability + High Turnover
What does that equal? I like to call it a purple unicorn. Compounding this equation is the fact that there’s a growing number of supply chain organizations competing to reach the same answer.
Technology and trends are redefining warehouse worker roles The first step in approaching this problem strategically requires: 1) a look at how warehouses have and will continue to change, 2) how far warehouses have come in recent years, and 3) why this – and the aforementioned market trends – are redefining the role of the warehouse worker.
Real-time WMS and fleet management solutions have been enabling speed and efficiency in warehouse operations for decades. During this time, there has also been an exponential expansion in the scale at which “digital edge” technologies can produce useful data. These innovations have been the backbone of the supply chain’s growth and recent digital transformation.
Accelerating this evolution are the WMS suppliers working to extend and advance their warehouse management system capabilities and the warehouse automation suppliers building out their technology offerings, both with the goal of streamlining operations, improving efficiency and reducing costs. These and other trends will continue enabling warehouses to operate with the agility required to meet the fulfillment expectations and demands of the modern, and increasingly online, consumer.
What I find particularly interesting is that these warehouse innovations are in direct conflict with the generic, preconceived and outdated views of warehouse work as difficult, laborious and a low-paying “sweaty” job. It is the industry’s responsibility to challenge these perceptions, establishing a more accurate definition of what warehouse work has become – and will become – as the profession continues evolving in the coming decade.
Distinguishing fact from FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) It stands to reason then that the warehouse worker’s role has not (yet) been replaced, but redefined. This means that humans are still in high demand. For the warehouse workforce, the ongoing introduction of new technologies and innovations are simply – but smartly – helping to enhance performance and improve overall labor conditions.
Understanding that innovation in the supply chain is fundamentally changing the role of the warehouse worker, the industry can take its new definition for this work and highlight its key differentiators to distinguish fact from FUD. Removing fear, uncertainty and doubt are essential for not just recruiting and retaining employees, but also riding out the current labor shortage. It also gives hope for warehouse managers who can tap into the incoming workforce (Millennials and Gen Z).
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