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By Kim Biggar
If you read from any news source for a day or two about freight forwarding or the bigger supply chain, you cannot fail to see that we are being inundated with new technologies. Keeping up with those technologies is a huge challenge, especially for small businesses with limited budgets.
Employers are concerned about their competitiveness if they don’t adopt new technologies, while employees are worried about their jobs if their employers do. According to findings of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (CSCSC), acquired through recent community partnership workshops in Alberta on emerging technologies, employees have even been known to sabotage new technologies in order to make their adoption difficult and ultimately unattractive to employers.
Even when newly adopted technologies are not being intentionally sabotaged, their implementation can be fraught with challenges. As trade association MHI notes in The 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report, “In order to successfully implement any of these technologies, companies need access to a skilled workforce. According to the survey, this is the biggest obstacle facing supply chain professionals, with a full 58% of respondents indicating that they face a significant challenge in hiring and retaining a skilled supply chain workforce.”
Peter Hawkins, Managing Director at MELLOHAWK Logistics in Mississauga, Ont., jokes that he is having to push himself beyond his own comfort zone as his company takes up new technologies. While his partner in the company, Arnon Melo, embraces technology, Peter is doing so largely because he knows he must as a leader, to ensure that the employees he manages see him using tech, not avoiding it. It’s meant a mindset change for him to match the change some of his employees, in particular the older ones, have had to make.
As the CSCSC notes in its January 2018 report, The Digital Supply Chain: Creating skills for the future, technology-use skills are just part of the parcel of skills that employers need to succeed in the high-tech supply chain. Soft skills, while always important in the workplace, have perhaps become more critical than ever.
Skill Requirements in a Changing Environment
According to the CSCSC report, future supply chain skills requirements (i.e., over the next three to five years) will be focused in three areas:
- Analysis and problem solving
Data and automation are reducing the amount of manual, repetitive work to be done, and making way for more IT and analysis work and systems thinking.
- Leadership and strategic vision
New business models require leaders to manage change, lead collaboration, develop sound business processes, and understand the business case for implementation of new technologies.
- Increased need for adaptability and understanding of new technologies
Digital literacy is a clear requirement in a digital workscape.
Sabah Sohail, President of LogisticsHires Search Consultants Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., and a board member of the CSCSC, adds communication skills and adaptability to the soft skills that will be increasingly important to workers’ success in supply chain occupations. The pace of technological change in the sector absolutely supports her emphasis on adaptability and flexibility.
She believes that many people, especially Millennials and their successors, have the tech know-how to use, or relatively easily learn to use, lots of the technology tools prevalent in the supply chain. As more and more pricing, booking and tracking systems, for example, work through smart phone apps, she says people accustomed to constant cell phone use do not find it a challenge to add an app and learn to utilize it.
Peter, too, has found, so far, that careful recruiting and hiring – of youngish people with a “propensity for change and technology, as well as good manners” – has enabled MELLOHAWK to stay up to date, but not leading-edge, with its tech use.
Despite the positive outlook of both Sabah and Peter, the news – and other stakeholders – tell a different story. Maybe some facets of the supply chain – maybe freight forwarding? – are facing a different challenge than finding people with the right skills. Maybe the problem is more to do with the slow adoption and implementation of technology by employers.
That is certainly what Sabah thinks.
What Should Employers Be Doing?
Sabah says small and medium-sized freight forwarding employers are, in many cases, “doing just what needs to be done, implementing technology only when they must, in most cases to meet government requirements.” Some employers, she says, are still using old systems that do not fully satisfy their business requirements. Sabah suggests that perhaps they feel they’re not in a position to adopt newer technologies because of a lack of money, manpower or time. She notes that, in cases where employees are still using spreadsheets, they input the same data over and over again, wasting time and surely making errors in the process. She believes that, because manual tasks like this hamper their productivity, they frustrate employees and cause them to look elsewhere for work.
While clearly there is a push in the freight forwarding industry to digitalize operations, MELLOHAWK’s experience in doing so has been an exercise in frustration. The company was an early adopter that prepared to meet the CBSA’s original implementation schedule for eManifest. Unfortunately, says Peter, early adoption simply meant the company faced costs that other companies have not incurred, as program-implementation delays continue.
This kind of experience scares employers, preventing many from making changes. How do you know what to do and when? Pat Campbell, Executive Director of the CSCSC, says that many participants in the organization’s emerging technologies workshops looked like “deer in the headlights” during discussions. “They know they should be doing something, in order to remain competitive, but when should they jump in and how do they choose what to invest in? They’re so afraid of making costly mistakes.”
With only so much money to spend, employers want to know that what they choose will have a positive return on investment. So, they wait to see what’s working for others. The problem with this approach is that, by the time they decide on an investment, the technology is likely already out of date, replaced by a new and improved version or concept.
If they don’t make choices at all, employers will be left behind. Investing in technologies and training in the supply chain is a must. Perhaps being a step behind works; being five steps behind will not.
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