Labor Crunch

Getting around the warehouse tech labor crunch

The persistent shortage of qualified material handling techs can be surmounted, and it starts with some forward thinking, executives say.

By Mark B. Solomon

The thousands of folks walking the show floor at ProMat 2017 in Chicago this week witnessed material handling automation on a scale unimaginable just two years ago. But the breathtaking high-tech improvements come with a hitch: a shortage of skilled workers to service the increasingly complex stuff.

According to a 2017 survey by MHI, the trade group that runs ProMat, 63 percent of respondents said that “hiring and retaining a skilled workforce” remains their top challenge. A 2015 forecast by EMSI, a unit of CareerBuilder.com, predicted the number of new supply chain technician positions would grow by 11 percent through 2025 to more than 2.6 million from less than 2.4 million. On top of the expected growth in new positions, about 22 percent of the 2015 tech labor pool will turn over by 2025 due to retirements and departures, according to the EMSI forecast. As a result, 770,000 tech-level job openings (new and replacement) will be created by mid-decade, the firm said. However, universities and technical schools are not turning out enough skilled techs to meet the projected demand, according to a study by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Organizations like the National Center for Supply Chain Automation are working to connect industry, academia, and talent in a long-range plan to build a self-sustaining labor pipeline. In the meantime, though, the goods still need to flow, warehouses need to hum, and expensive mission-critical systems and equipment need to be maintained and serviced.

The stakes in keeping systems running are higher than ever because of the explosive growth of e-commerce, which puts a premium on speed and precision in the DC to meet uncompromising omnichannel fulfillment demands. A company like Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc., the world’s largest e-tailer and now a major fulfillment services provider, has “no tolerance for downtime” in its centers, said Todd Sermersheim, vice president, North America customer service for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based systems integrator Dematic, a unit of German conglomerate Kion Group AG.

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION …

Maintenance comes at a cost, but the tab in time and money can be mitigated by proactive lifecycle checks, according to executives of system integrators, companies that blend material handling and software systems from multiple suppliers into a whole and ensure the component parts function smoothly together.

Whether they do it in-house or outsource the work—and many companies still opt for the former—businesses need to conduct five- to 10-year lifecycle assessments on new systems and develop remediation plans for older systems that are more vulnerable to near-term problems, said Dave Trice, senior director of business development, lifecycle support for Mason, Ohio-based systems integrator Intelligrated, a unit of Honeywell International Inc.

Intelligrated offers an end-to-end solution called “Iris,” which Trice said provides customers with a support “roadmap,” something sorely needed by businesses with expanding DC footprints. Dematic has also established a “managed services” unit, run by Sermersheim, dedicated to analyzing systems and equipment, and to identifying potential problems before they occur.

Integrators are training non-techs to handle problems that don’t require highly skilled hands. For example, Conshohocken, Pa.-based systems integrator Invata Intralogistics Inc. trains customers on its systems so they can provide support on their own, according to Walter High, vice president of marketing. The objective, said High, is to allow customers to self-diagnose and repair when possible so they “do not need to call on Invata for a majority of support-related issues.”

Raising worker proficiency in troubleshooting physical systems, or even helping with software repair, allows companies to solve minor technical problems on their own and in real time, material handling executives said. This frees up the so-called multicraft technicians—folks who can perform virtually every job in the warehouse and who are in the greatest demand—to focus on more challenging tasks. It also builds marketable skills for warehouse workers whose jobs might otherwise be replaced by automation, according to executives.

Industrial truck manufacturer Seegrid offers a two-day training program that certifies manufacturing employees to operate, repair, and manage fleets of its next-generation autonomous vision-guided vehicles (VGVs). The program trains customers’ employees to handle routine tasks without the aid of a Seegrid technician, enabling them to develop skills as “robot fleet managers,” according to Jeff Christensen, vice president of products at Pittsburgh-based Seegrid.

“This shift in responsibility is empowering manufacturing employees to have an ownership stake in the adoption of this new technology and will only continue to create more opportunities within the workforce,” Christensen said in an e-mail.

One untapped resource is the real estate and logistics services giants like Los Angeles-based CBRE Group Inc., Chicago-based JLL Inc., and New York-based Cushman & Wakefield Inc. Until now, businesses have outsourced general building maintenance services to the real estate giants, said Steve Harrington, industry liaison for the National Center for Supply Chain Automation. Now, however, there is a push by customers to convince the giants to provide “integrated facilities management” services that include managing the systems and equipment on the floor, and the labor needed to support it, Harrington said. A full-service suite of solutions from the real estate firms might not be far off, he said.

A MOVING TARGET

Though systems integrators employ hundreds of on-site support technicians, most maintenance and repairs are now done remotely, either by communicating with workers on the plant or DC floor, or through embedded software that allows integrators to make immediate fixes without having a technician at the site. For instance, Dematic rolled out in late February a mobile phone app called “SiteView,” which functions like the “FaceTime” app on Apple iPhones to enable Dematic technicians to see and hear descriptions of the problem from a non-tech worker on the floor, according to Sermersheim.

“We are driving more technology than ever into our products to allow for more self-diagnostics and problem solving,” said John Sorensen, Intelligrated’s senior vice president and general manager, lifecycle support services.

Technical mastery of systems and equipment is a moving target, mainly because the marketplace moves on so quickly from the last big thing. What’s considered whiz-bang at this year’s ProMat show may be obsolete by 2019, replaced by automation that hasn’t yet been conceived. The difficulty in acquiring, training, and retaining engineers and technicians will create greater demand for machines and solutions that do not require complex programming and that can be managed by people who may not have received formal training to do so.

Perhaps most important is the need to think proactively when it comes to support, no easy task with maintenance budgets that are fixed even as DC networks expand, and with omnichannel demand ratcheting up the pressure to perform. “Everybody has been in a firefighting mode for some time,” said Sorensen of Intelligrated.

Businesses with fast-growing DC networks tend to give proactive strategies short shrift, either because they are overwhelmed by current demands or are unaware that they need to, according to integrator executives. In addition, they may take a chance on hiring a supposedly qualified technician, only to discover that the employee can’t keep up with the demands of rapid system and equipment obsolescence or master the technology upgrades, they added. All of this presents a recipe for trouble down the line, they warned.

“There was a time that you could walk in with a tool bag and be moderately successful,” said Sorensen. “You can’t do that anymore.”

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