November 16, 2009
special report | Workforce Development

Public-private partnerships touted as answer to logistics labor woes

Public-private partnerships touted as answer to logistics labor woes

Industry is desperate for trained logistics employees. Governments want to create jobs. Colleges want students. When they team up on logistics workforce development, everybody wins.

By Toby Gooley

At a time when scads of logistics experts are looking for work, you'd think it would be easy to find the right people to fill logistics, distribution, and transportation positions. Yet companies still say they face a serious shortage of logistics talent. What gives?

The problem is not a scarcity of executive MBAs, and it's not about simply filling open slots with warm bodies. It's about the lack of knowledgeable, competent people to work in operations—forklift drivers, warehouse supervisors, import/export managers, and just about any other entry- and mid-level logistics position you can think of. These jobs are now viewed as integral components of a complex supply chain, and most require some understanding of technology. By all accounts, there aren't enough people who can perform those functions as they need to be performed in this era of "the perfect order." In short, the demand for logistics-savvy workers has exceeded the supply.

To address this problem, public-private partnerships focused on logistics workforce development are springing up across the country. Industry, academia, and government are collaborating to meet industry's needs while promoting economic and job growth—a formula they think will be a winner for all sides.

Mutual interests
Logistics industry groups have already tried to address the workforce issue. What's different now is the breadth of participation and the recognition that logistics is a critical player in economic development.

For example, North Carolina's Piedmont Triad Logistics and Distribution Roundtable has four objectives: land-use planning, developing the region as a global logistics hub, promoting logistics as a career path for youth, and expanding logistics education programs. The Columbus (Ohio) Region Logistics Council's objectives include fostering a "logistics-friendly" business environment, improving logistics infrastructure, bringing more logistics technology to regional industry, and developing a highly skilled logistics workforce.

These and other public-private groups typically include employers (such as shippers, carriers, and third-party logistics companies), academic institutions, economic development agencies, and local or state governments. All have a vested interest in a knowledgeable logistics workforce. Employers need skilled workers who understand day-to-day operations. Governments want to create jobs—and logistics is one field where jobs are likely to grow. Economic development agencies want to attract business, and a pool of well-trained workers is a powerful incentive. And academic institutions are looking to expand their offerings and serve more students.

Each of these groups brings something to the table, says John Ness, president of ODW Logistics and co-chair of the Columbus Region Logistics Council. "We have learned a lot from the failure of freight-only or private industry-only initiatives that are out of touch with what government, technology, and academia are doing to advance their individual causes for the region's overall benefit," he says.

Leaders of workforce initiatives stress the importance of harnessing the resources of a chamber of commerce or other economic development agency. "We get access to an engine we wouldn't have on our own: the chamber's established process for driving change and influencing government," says Ness, whose group is supported by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Both the Columbus Chamber and the Greensboro, N.C.-based Piedmont Triad Partnership, the business development group spearheading that region's logistics initiative, have hired logistics experts to help turn ideas into economic reality.

Not all such public-private groups are local. The state of Michigan recently launched the Michigan Supply Chain Management Development Commission; commissioners include representatives from industry, government, and academia appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The commission's goal is to influence state transportation and economic development policies. Its immediate task is to develop a statewide plan for attracting, supporting, marketing, and growing the international trade, supply chain, and logistics sectors. Workforce development will be a key component of that effort. That's a natural focus in a state whose economy depends on manufacturing, says commission member John A. Evans, president of Evans Distribution Systems. "In order to have a good environment to encourage manufacturing development, you need good logistics and supply chain management. In order to have good logistics and supply chain capabilities, you need industry. They rely on each other."

Making progress
A look at a few of the public-private logistics workforce initiatives now under way offers a glimpse of how different constituencies are collaborating:

  • In North Carolina, the Piedmont Triad Partnership has announced plans to build the Piedmont Triad Center for Global Logistics, which will be housed at a new facility at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro. Nearly 20 community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, along with shippers, carriers, and business development organizations, are involved in developing certificate, degree, and continuing education programs.
  • Workforce Florida Inc., an agency that oversees the state's workforce policies, programs, and services, established the Employ Florida Banner Center for Logistics & Distribution. Three educational institutions that operate the center collaborate with a consortium of five other public and private organizations. The center's advisory council includes operations managers from shippers, carriers, ports, and third-party logistics service providers (3PLs) as well as representatives of economic development agencies and the participating colleges and universities.
  • A diverse group of government agencies, private businesses, and community colleges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have joined forces to develop a Certified Logistics Associate and Certified Logistics Technician credentialing program. The certifications, designed for both high school and community college students, are administered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council. The national training center for certification program instructors is the Tarrant County College Corporate Training Center located at the Alliance Global Logistics Hub.
  • The Columbus Region Logistics Council's workforce committee provides a forum for businesses to discuss training and skills requirements and learn about logistics education resources in the area. The group also works with educators to develop relevant curricula and helps employment organizations understand logistics career paths.

The logistics advantage
In all of these programs, industry's input continues to be critical. Shippers, carriers, 3PLs, and other companies know what logistics skills are in short supply now and what their businesses will need in the future.

Academic institutions are listening. Community colleges, with their focus on practical application of knowledge, are playing a leading role in logistics curriculum development. They consult with both line managers and senior executives to ensure their course offerings are relevant. "The pattern starts with industry's needs, and we develop a curriculum around that," explains Columbus State Community College professor Mary Vaughn, co-chair of the Columbus Region Logistics Council's workforce development committee.

Ultimately, public-private logistics workforce initiatives will benefit the economy as a whole, many believe. It's not hard to see why: "We're in a unique economic situation, transforming from manufacturing to services," says Mark Richards, vice president of Associated Warehouses Inc. and a former chairman of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. "That doesn't change the need for logistics expertise. Regardless of where a product comes from, as a country, we have to be sure we have the most efficient supply chain to maintain our competitive advantage."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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