Carpe diem

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Employers want people who can hit the ground running. They want people with good experience who know intrinsically what to do as soon as they go through the door.

Mark Botham, George HendersonIt may seem horribly premature reading about Christmas at the beginning of November, but there’s nothing hasty about the level of preparation needed by companies whose task it is to ensure no one’s Christmas is let down by a parcel that never arrived.

All major third party logistics operators are likely to have fail-safe plans in place well before December. But to ensure that the goods flow is not disrupted by peak service volumes, experienced extra workers are a must-have.

Colin Millbanks, the legendary boss of Parceline, used to recount this salutary tale for those who thought the Christmas streets were paved with gold.

The problem with Christmas, he said, is that there is lots of extra business out there for delivery companies, and the temptation is to try and grab a great chunk of it and make a killing. That means taking on temporary staff and hiring in extra vehicles to handle the additional traffic.

The trouble is that the temporary staff don’t know the routes or the customers, and don’t have the same grounding in the organisation’s service culture. Consequently, deliveries are often late or, worse, missed altogether. Managers are run ragged solving the problems but at least there is the prospect of a big payday once the dust settles.

But you struggle through to January and you find that your costs went through the roof, the service levels were poor so you get no long-term business from the new customers. Worst of all, the bad service has angered your best customers who are now leaving in droves. Millbanks’s solution involved careful planning and taking care not to overstretch resources.

That said, the indications are that these considerations are going to be less of a problem this year. The market for interim managers has grown steadily over the past few years. However, Mark Botham, managing director of logistics and supply chain recruitment specialist George Henderson International, reckons that this year there’s likely to be a drop-off in demand for interim manager and shift supervisor roles over the Christmas period, as a result of the economic climate. Demand could be up to 50 per cent less than last year.

And Barrie Dowsett, managing director of recruitment consultancy the BJD Group, says a lot of great managers are becoming available because of the amount of cutbacks companies are being forced to make, again, because of the economic situation.

As a result, “a lot of really good managers have just come onto the market, and are likely to be available for temporary positions,” says Dowsett. “Companies will be looking for additional skills to those that their permanent staff already have.” Leadership and adaptability are highly sought after skills as are people who are result-driven.

Generally, demand for interim managers is constant all year round, not just during the Christmas period. However, Botham says there can be a noticeable increase in the demand for operational rather than strategic managers at Christmas. When companies look to recruit interim managers to help deal with peak volumes, they will want people who can manage entire warehouse operations, rather than assess the company’s potential growth strategies.

Strategic approach

This means good people management skills will be in high demand. “Employers want people who can hit the ground running. They want people with good experience who know intrinsically what to do as soon as they go through the door,” says Botham.

Phil Donbavand, head of recruitment, supply chain and logistics practice, Purcon, says: “For many logistics operations Christmas and the need for additional temporary staff is a real problem.” He points to building closer relations with the customer and adopting a more cross-functional approach as having a positive affect on the visibility and accuracy of forecast data. “Some organisations can therefore take a more strategic, longer term approach to meeting the increasing demands of Christmas peak.”

He says that to help this approach supply chain interims are increasingly brought in to review structures, processes and people, to help make logistic infrastructures more flexible and robust, and therefore less reliant on fulfilling Christmas demand by the more traditional approach of doubling or even trebling shop floor labour resource.

“However for many organisations this is common because shared forecasting systems and automation is not an affordable or justifiable answer for what is in effect three months of the calendar year.”

He reckons that focusing on improving productivity by managing and incentivising existing staff differently is an increasing trend that helps make companies less dependent on a vastly increased temporary workforce.

“Despite the trend towards a more strategic approach (interim consultant engagement) to meeting customer demand during Christmas peak it is never going to swing entirely towards this approach. Using temporary labour is always going to be a feature of meeting peak, to what extent depends on the cost, industry, importance and sophistication of a companies logistics operation.”

Finding suitable people to fill these roles is vital for a company to see it through to January unscathed and without the loss of any customers. But getting hold of the right people is not as simple as it sounds, especially considering every company will be on the lookout for the best people.

Recruiting in areas of high employment can be particularly problematic. Botham says some companies are, “willing to go to the extremities of the country to recruit, because it’s a good way to ensure they get the people they want/need.” This can even stretch to providing accommodation for them.

Dowsett agrees that widening the geographic scope is vital to finding quality people. “This means some of them will have to be, “bed and breakfasted”.

Finding managers, either on an interim or temporary basis, is one thing, but finding temporary shop floor workers presents a different set of problems. Nikki Keable, human resources manager at Kuehne + Nagel Retail Services, says the demand for warehouse workers during peak periods can rise to between 35 and 45 per cent in the company’s retail support service sector alone.

The trick is in maintaining the same service levels that are promised to customers all year round, but with triple the volumes. To do this, Keable stresses that it is important for temporary staff to have good product knowledge. Kuehne + Nagel expects its temporary employees to have the same skills as its permanent ones, so it can maintain the same speed and quality of service it provides during non-peak periods. As a result it has a number of temporary employee training schemes. Topics range from warehouse and materials handling training, product knowledge, customer service and driving skills.

“We tend to rely on our good relationship with our major supplier for temporary labour. This enables us to recruit effectively and quickly as they know our business, standards and customers and they already have many workers who are available to return to us who have the right training and skills for our business,” says Keable.

Technology can help. NYK Logistics has benefited from using wearable mobile computers to speed up the training of its seasonal staff. These scan the barcodes on parcels and then display the bin number to deposit it in.

Employees can be quickly trained to use the computers, which means temporary staff are at a comparable level of productivity and accuracy within hours, rather than days, of starting work.

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