Michael Mikitka has worked for or led trade associations for most of his career. He began with the Property Loss Research Bureau (PLRB), a trade association of property and casualty insurance companies. It was there that he learned to organize and manage education programs and develop an industry trade show. That experience served him well when in 2000, he entered the supply chain arena, joining the staff of the Warehousing Education and Research Council, better known in the industry as WERC.
Mikitka first served as senior director of the organization’s flagship annual conference and managed WERC’s network of chapters. In 2009, WERC’s board of directors appointed him CEO. He remained in that role until August 2020, when WERC came under the umbrella of MHI, the nation’s largest material handling, logistics, and supply chain association.
Mikitka’s new role is executive vice president of the MHI Knowledge Center and WERC. He is responsible for member engagement and influence as well as overseeing the ongoing education, research, and professional development services that WERC members have enjoyed since its founding in 1977. He recently spoke with DC Velocity Group Editorial Director David Maloney about the latest happenings at WERC.
Q: Could you describe the role of the Warehousing Education and Research Council within the supply chain management profession?
A: The Warehousing Education and Research Council, WERC, is an association of professionals who manage logistics throughout the supply chain. Our focus is on best practices in warehousing as well as the quantitative and qualitative metrics of warehousing and distribution, and warehousing’s role in the overall supply chain.
Q: You started at WERC in 2000, which is more than 20 years ago. A lot has happened in the industry since then. What are the most significant changes you’ve seen during your time at WERC?
A: When I started at WERC, my first job was to focus on its 2001 conference. I remember meeting with the committee at that time and hearing a lot of talk about these online orders—internet orders and e-commerce orders. I’m not even sure if it was called that back then, but it was all about the rise of e-commerce, what it meant, and how companies were handling it. It was a very big deal at the time along with some issues and mandates that were coming down regarding RFID (radio-frequency identification). So, it was an interesting and exciting time.
Obviously, the rise of e-commerce and the e-commerce–driven advances in technology that have taken place over the last 20 years have been amazing and have made an incredible impact. So, the most significant change has been the influence of e-commerce.
But while a lot has changed, a lot has also stayed the same. The pillars and the core of supply chain—people, process, and technology—are still at the heart of it, no matter how fulfillment takes place.
Q: And that e-commerce explosion has really changed the technologies that are used for fulfillment, such as the new types of automated equipment.
A: It has, and we are starting to see a shift again, as there’s been an even bigger push toward automation with some of the workforce challenges and disruptions we’ve experienced over the last two years. Companies are also relaxing some of their expectations regarding their return on investment [in automated systems], knowing that it might take a little bit longer. But we definitely see more of a push in that direction.
Q: You just touched on some of the lingering effects of the pandemic. What are WERC members’ top challenges right now?
A: I think they are similar to what a lot of industries are facing. Obviously, the squeeze with the workforce and the availability of labor. Then there are still regulations dictating what they can do and how they can do it. And of course there are the transportation challenges, the logjams at the ports, and the general supply chain issues that we hear about in the news every day.
Q: WERC became a part of MHI in August 2020. Could you describe the role that you play within MHI and the opportunities presented by the MHI/WERC merger for WERC members?
A: Sure. I have the benefit of having a foot in both organizations, if you will, with oversight of MHI’s Knowledge Center and my continuing role with WERC. With the acquisition came opportunities to look at the supply chain and logistics more holistically. We try to serve both those who provide products and services to the industry and those who use those products and services, the practitioners.
The acquisition provided an opportunity for us to step back and look at the industry together and come up with a collaborative approach. Both organizations see value in maintaining our identities and maintaining our audiences. MHI is a trade association, so its members are companies, whereas WERC is a professional association and our members are individuals. So, how we focus on and how we deliver our services to those two audiences are different. But ultimately, we each have things that we can offer that provide value for both of our groups. So, the collaboration and acquisition have provided opportunities to make products and services available to a greater audience.
Q: WERC recently hosted its first in-person annual conference after two years of being virtual. You were in Louisville, Kentucky, the first week of May. Can you share some highlights of the event?
A: The conference was peer-developed as it has always been, so professionals from a number of companies helped to plan the program. All of our content is always developed by the members for the members and focuses on the takeaways that people will leave the conference with.
This year, there was a big push on workforce issues around retention and hiring. We focused on the impact of automation, evaluating opportunities, assessing what attendees’ needs are, and the core competencies of warehousing and the processes that take place—whether it’s trade issues, transportation issues, or anything that impacts our members and their ability to do their jobs and provide their products and services to their customers.
Q: As you mentioned earlier, WERC’s membership is made up of practitioners. Because of that, education has always been a very strong focus for the group. Could you talk about some of the educational opportunities that are available to your members throughout the year?
A: Certainly. As we see Covid winding down, our chapters are becoming more active, so we’re looking at bringing back local opportunities for facility tours or speaker events. Our Texas chapter last year brought back its regional conference. It was well attended, and we are looking forward to doing that again. So these days, we can deliver our content in a number of different ways, whether it is face-to-face or whether it is online through our series of webcasts.
Q: WERC and DC Velocity have collaborated for many years on the annual Warehouse Metrics study. What was the focus of this year’s study?
A: This year’s study had two areas of focus. We looked at microdistribution, as our members are dealing with the challenges of serving customers in urban settings. With the rise of e-commerce, microdistribution is of great interest to a number of our members.
The study also looked at a number of workforce issues and the impact they are having on the supply chain as well as distribution.
Also new this year, we are making the study more engaging for our members by developing a tool that will allow them to go online, enter their data, and see how it compares with the [performance numbers] in the report. They will then be able to develop a number of reports that they can use and share with their teams. They can also compare facilities within their networks. The goal is to make the tool more usable, more useful, and more engaging for our members.