Here we are in the twenty-first century with the logistics industry as the fifth largest sector in the fifth largest economy in the world. Turning over £75 billion per annum in the UK alone and employing 2.3 million people (or one in 12 working people in the UK).
And yet, as we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, conservative estimates suggest that some 330,000 logistics employees lack basic reading skills and 450,000 lack basic number skills.
This is in an industry where customer service is primarily based on accuracy and efficiency – delivered on time in full is the expected minimum service – all from an industry that has 15 per cent unable to read to acceptable standards and more or less one in five of its workforce lacking basic numeracy skills.
This is in an industry where the workplaces (be they warehouse or cab) are increasingly subject to increasingly demanding health and safety regimes. If one in seven of the workforce, your workforce, has problems reading H&S documentation and safety notices then they are literally not worth the paper they are written on.
This is in an industry which the UK and indeed the global economy literally could not do without. You quite simply would not be able to access this text without logistics because, even if the message arrived with you across the ether, the equipment you are using to read it only reached you because of logistics.
The government assesses the UK workforce by the level of qualifications enjoyed. It is the only effective way to compare across vastly different sectors such as construction, engineering, health and hairdressing. The targeted base level of qualification is the so called Level 2. In the logistics workforce, 47 per cent or 1.1 million people fall below that level. For the fifth largest sector in the fifth largest economy in the world in the twenty-first century this is not something to be proud of.
While the 1.1 million includes those with reading and numbers shortfalls it also includes people with driving licences, fork lift truck certificates and many people who have had internal on-the-job training.
The big question is, is this enough? The government thinks not and is making a great deal of funding available over the next few years to bring the UK workforce as a whole up to at least Level 2.
The logistics sector employs eight per cent of the UK workforce, which is the same as the construction sector and slightly less than engineering which employs nine per cent. That is where the similarity ends, construction gets 13 per cent of publicly funded training, engineering gets 19 per cent and logistics gets under two per cent.
Why is the level so low for logistics compared with other sectors? The figures are relatively high for construction and engineering because companies in those sectors embrace vocational qualifications and make use of apprenticeships as they bring people on in their craft. In logistics, by and large, employers do not and the effect is right across the board.
In the construction sector, 17 per cent of managers are below Level 2 in qualification terms. In logistics, the figure is 36 per cent. For waiting staff in the catering sector, 33 per cent are below Level 2; for warehouse operatives the figure is 60 per cent.
The government is very keen to address these issues. To reduce the number of people without a Level 2 qualification by 40 per cent (a current government target), the logistics sector will need to produce over 400,000 Level 2 qualified people. The government is making the necessary money (around £720 million) available through a scheme in England called Train to Gain.
However, that funding will only be provided for publicly recognised qualifications such as NVQs or Skills for Life (literacy and numeracy). If we do not take up our fair share in the logistics sector, the money will still be spent but the training will go to sectors such as construction, engineering and hairdressing where the worth of the qualifications is recognised and appreciated.
A number of organisations have got together to identify far-seeing and commercially astute companies of all sizes and types who have seen the real bottom-line benefits available from addressing and adopting NVQs and basic skills. These case studies are being made available to show others the benefits.
As a sector we face a stark choice. Option one is to do nothing, continue as a low skilled, unattractive industry that is often a job of last resort, and as a result continue as a commodity demanding low rates and low margins.
Option two on the other hand is to ensure we have the qualifications that people need, build them into formal training and development programmes, turn the sector into a profession appropriate to its pivotal role in the economy, get margins up and make it a profession of choice.
As a sector we need to have no truck with low skills, not only in the cab but in the warehouse and the office too.