Amazon's Jeff Bezos scored a multidimensional coup with his splashy introduction on CBS's "60 Minutes" of early prototype "octocopter" home delivery drones. The initial reaction, encapsulated in Charlie Rose's "Oh, my God!" response, is inevitably one of either embracing or shrinking from what a re-imagined future of fulfillment might look like.
The spectacle of skies filled with tiny bionic birds clutching small packages is startling enough, but when FedEx, UPS, the USPS, and countless local delivery operations contemplate all those little birds flying away with bundles of revenue, attention, in Willy Loman's words, must be paid.
Whatever other fulfillment and delivery enterprises do in response, we are clearly looking at the vision of a new future. What is truly sobering is the likelihood that today's prototypes are merely a preview of coming attractions. By the time concepts are proven, approvals are granted, processes are shaken down, and failsafes are embedded, the five-years-out version is likely to be faster, have greater range, and be able to carry larger and heavier packages—in essence, changing the game before it is even under way.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
Commentators, some envious, some cynical, and some both, have observed that CBS had been bamboozled into giving away several hundred thousand dollars worth of free air time to promote a commercial enterprise. Bezos got to put on a longish infomercial for Amazon, cementing its share of mind with consumers, impressing business targets, and scaring the bejeepers out of competitors—all just in time for the Black Friday/Cyber Monday retailing frenzy that infects the national economy each year.
Whether the vision Amazon is promoting ever comes to fruition or not, the retailing exposure could not have been greater, even disguised as news. As they say in the popular Guinness commercial, "Brilliant!"
As much as anything, though, the announcement illustrates the breadth and depth of jobs required to make 21st century supply chains operate effectively, and it highlights the shallowness and insufficiency of past initiatives in training, education, and work-force development. The day of living and dying within the confines of order selection, fulfillment, material handling, and truck driving is rapidly disappearing—and none too soon.
Our profession has, as everyone except those mired up to their knees at La Brea knows, evolved mightily. Research and education, as well as process improvement and productivity initiatives, were originally focused on material handling—essentially industrial engineering approaches to how we did our jobs within warehouses. That was some 70 or more years ago. The next stage of our maturing perspective encompassed physical distribution, basically transactionally oriented transportation and warehouse management. That awakening followed World War II and a morphing into what was known in wartime terminology as "logistics." But the focus remained on point-to-point transport and activities within the four walls of warehouses and distribution centers. Slowly, we began to consider factors of how we related to suppliers and customers' customers in this vision.
Although the term "supply chain management" was coined in the early '80s, we did not formally include the scope and span of end-to-end supply chains in our planning, synchronization, and execution until early in this century. But our work-force development at the functional level continued to point to how to fill needs, real or prospective, in truck drivers and warehouse/distribution center workers.
We will not for a second dispute the need to make truck driving a more attractive career option, to bring more people into the field. We will continue to need large numbers of order pickers and forklift drivers. And we almost desperately need to bring university students into supply chain programs rather than have them drift into marketing or some other field of study.
But in between, we have enormous needs for a range of skills and talents that we did not anticipate a few years ago. Customer service representatives, service technicians, inventory analysts, supply chain IT specialists, industrial engineers, supply chain HR specialists, electricians, buyers, production planners, supply chain services, sales and marketing specialists, manufacturing/conversion operators—and on, and on, and on.
Some estimates claim that 85 percent of supply chain jobs do not require university degrees, and a growing percentage of those are not in traditional logistics (order picking, material handling, driving) functions.
WHERE WILL TOMORROW'S WORKERS COME FROM?
Some will come from universities, sure. But many will arrive directly from high school. Some will need associates degrees from community colleges or for-profit schools. Some will need functional certification (typically easily obtained in short training programs). Some will return from military service, either fully or partially trained.
Regardless of education, training, or certification options involved, there are nontraditional talent pools available. Examples include people with physical or emotional limitations, immigrant populations, second-job/income workers, students, stay-at-home parents, and displaced experienced workers.
The points are:
Somebody's going to have to engineer, design, test, and roll out those octocopters. Somebody's going to have to fix the broken ones. Someone's going to have to figure out how to lay out a facility for them to pick things up (and plan how to put things away when they either arrive or are returned). Somebody's going to have to deal with the customer whose package fell from the sky into a neighbor's backyard. Somebody's going to have to test the technology behind the octo-execution. And somebody's going to have to test, evaluate, and hire the people who do all that.
Welcome to the complex new world of supply chain talent management.