People are our scarcest asset

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Those wishing to succeed in the logistics industry must continuously improve their service to stay ahead of the competition. The result is a flow of initiatives, projects and new practices all competing for that scarcest resource of all – human attention.

So, why the shortfall in the logistics industry? The extended scope of the Working Time Directive (WTD) to cover the transport industry is one explanation. It would be foolish to suggest that there will be no impact, but I believe the issues are more fundamental and deep rooted than this.

In believe there is a greater recruitment challenge for the industry, and it’s about perception and culture. Put simply, the industry suffers from a poor image. It does not compare favourably with some of the more glamorous career opportunities. If we as an industry need to attract the best, then we must present ourselves as an attractive proposition. Working conditions have improved considerably but we still have some way to go to ensure school leavers want to join our industry, and that graduates see it as one which offers opportunity and a challenging environment.

Equally, for those we do recruit into logistics, it can be difficult to keep hold of them over the medium- to longer-term, as they move into alternative occupations that are less arduous and with less anti-social hours. We therefore have a major retention issue too.

So how can we more effectively recruit and retain our staff, while continuing to offer the service levels required by our customers? There are no global standards at an individual level, and a huge range of views about what features define a good employer or a great place to work. However, I will suggest several avenues for further consideration.

Firstly, we need to recognise that people want respect. They want their ideas to be taken seriously and to understand the rationale behind the organisation’s decisions. This means taking care to ensure those involved are engaged in the process, by having an explanation of the plans and clarity in their execution. In taking this approach we create an environment where employees find themselves able to co-operate and give of their best. Failure to do this may result in individuals feeling cheated, disrespected and vulnerable. This is seen in some of the more public industrial relations issues of late. Instead of willingly supporting the change or initiative, a climate of foot dragging and counter efforts – even to the point of sabotage – is the penalty imposed by those who were left out of process.

Secondly, who is responsible for managing this valuable human resource? In short, we all are. It occurs on several levels. I believe that the function can add value when it helps the business develop capabilities to compete and win business. These capabilities become tangible assets as they provide the means by which future earnings streams will be delivered. These include such elements as instilling learning – if lessons have to be continually relearned then time and effort is wasted and opportunities are missed; structured development – offering people the opportunity to learn new skills and participate in the company at whatever level they can effectively contribute; strategic clarity – companies who know where they are heading and how they will get there have clear goals and strategic objectives and these are well communicated to the whole of the workforce; leadership – building a leadership style appropriate to the business means that every employee in a leadership role has the right skills, and attributes to carry the business forward.

I indicated that the management of the human resource is at many levels. First line managers make the day-to-day decisions governing how work gets done. With their commitment they can support HR by being the visible and public champions at the sharp end. They in turn need to feel that their own managers are displaying the behaviours identified as crucial to the success of the organisation.

What is required to bind these and other initiatives together is an over-arching strategy, under which each logistics company proactively enters the labour market with the aim of engaging with the right audiences and distinguishing itself from the competition – to become the employer of choice. In so doing, it will emphasise certain aspects of its employment offering.

Those companies which manage to do this successfully will be the ones who will successfully negotiate the recruitment and retention difficulties ahead.

For the others, the future will be very problematic indeed.

Jane Hawkins is human resources director at UCI Logistics.

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