Does anybody know we’re here? Mick Jackson

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At the time of writing, we have just emerged from a week where two well-known high street names, Woolworths and MFI have called in the administrators. Again, by the time you read this, there’s a fair chance that the former will be part of one of our leading supermarket chains while MFI becomes part of the Dragon’s Den phenomenon to remind us that entrepreneurship is about opportunism.

Anyway, all the headlines were about the loss of some 30,000 jobs in those two organisations. Tragic as that clearly is however, none of the media picked up the pain that will be felt by our sector. When times were good, every single SKU sold by both companies reached the consumer courtesy of the logistics function and, predominantly third party logistics providers.

As ever, the logistics sector was the lifeblood of those two organisations. Inevitably, there will be major job losses at the erstwhile providers of those two companies. As a 3PL, if you lose a contract you try and deploy the people on other contracts. When those other contracts dry up, the options dry up too.

I was with a small provider last week who has had to turn to long-term storage in two sheds – just to get some money in. Result? Laying off a number of warehouse staff. Long-term storage doesn’t move. Long-term storage doesn’t need handling so it doesn’t need warehouse staff.

These incidences are every bit as tragic as those making the headlines and my point is they will be reflected and multiplied throughout the supply chains of each headline corporate failure throughout the recession.

We have a situation where we are probably losing tens of thousands of jobs yet somehow, we don’t get to hear about these on the news. This is another example of how our sector has an image problem. We are a classic unseen sector – out of sight and out of mind, except for when a big truck is in front of us in a traffic queue or when an overpaid, over-rated, egotistical presenter chooses to have a prime-time pop at truck drivers.

There are many problems arising from the image that the logistics sector has. At Skills for Logistics our concern is to help give the sector and its current employees a more professional image. If the sector is more widely appreciated as the pivotal business function that it is, we can encourage more school, college and university graduates to join us and the image will, in turn improve further.

The two greatest enemies to all of this are apathy from employers and employees currently in the business and the sector as a whole being invisible to the public at large, opinion formers and policy makers.

Internal apathy from the sector can be addressed – not easily, but at least the more aware companies can exercise some self-help. The real benefits to the bottom line of developing the skills of your workforce are well documented and readily achievable with government subsidy.

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External awareness of the sector and its very real challenges in a recession is another matter. We know we are a very fragmented sector (2.3 million employees in 196,000 companies) but we need a focus, we need to get ourselves as a sector onto people’s radar screens, we need to get our problems in their faces.

Maybe someone can pick up the challenge and create a logistics jobwatch function detailing jobs lost across the sector, across the UK. Maybe then the true horrors can be seen by all, especially governments.

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