This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Clare Bottle Chief Executive of the UK Warehousing Association (UKWA).
People who work in warehousing often share amusing anecdotes about how they fell into the profession unexpectedly. But it’s no joke. More than 7 per cent of the UK’s workforce is employed in logistics, yet this vital and growing sector of the UK economy is absent from the National Curriculum and sorely under-represented in higher education. We teach our children throughout their formative years, from the age of four to 18, without ever mentioning logistics to them (except in one lesson on supply chains, if you take Business as an A-Level or BTEC). Law and Medicine degrees are offered by over 100 institutions, compared to a measly 17 for Logistics or Supply Chain. Then we expect, as if by magic, people will opt for a career in this profession they have never heard of. It’s no wonder that warehousing is suffering a chronic labour crisis.
Warehousing has historically been invisible to Government too. But in 2021, supply-chain uncertainty, precipitated by Brexit, COVID and the unfortunate jamming up of the Suez Canal when the Evergiven ran aground, prompted more public policy interest in the resilience of our supply chains than ever before. Facing the threat of panic buying and under pressure to get a grip quickly, the Cabinet Office recruited a Supply Chain Tsar, Sir Dave Lewis, to save Christmas. Even he was surprised to learn, from a UK Warehousing Association report, that warehousing had grown by over 30 per cent in the previous six years.
In this context, it is hugely disappointing to read reports of Labour’s shadow Science Minister, Chi Onwurah, saying ‘we should be inspiring young people with the endless possibilities of science, not directing them to warehouses’. At best, her remarks imply a value judgement about warehousing as a less inspiring career choice than science. This is demoralising for those of us trying to showcase the many prestigious, challenging and well-paid opportunities available in the sector. And it further betrays a lack of understanding of the critical role warehouses play in virtually every aspect of the UK economy, including science.
For example, seven modern warehouses located throughout England form the backbone of our NHS Supply Chain. They manage more than 8 million orders across 94,000 order points, to deliver over 28 million lines of picked goods every year, to 17,465 NHS delivery locations. Moreover, the NHS Supply Chain has successfully relied on third-party logistics service providers, such as Unipart Logistics – a longstanding member of the UK Warehousing Association – to support the cold chain for its world-beating management of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, where essential drugs had to be stored at very low temperatures. Failing to recognise this suggests the Shadow Minister is out of touch not only with the nature of contemporary warehousing but also with its relevance to science.
Ms Onwurah was responding to the Science Minister George Freeman from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Having woken up to Logistics, BEIS recently made some remarkable predictions for the growth of robotics and automation. Robots, they explained, have ‘the potential to support other government priorities, including Net Zero, and provide wider benefits such as an increase in safety for workers, and to replace mundane, repetitive tasks’. In warehousing, their ambitious forecasts suggest the density of robots will increase more than one-hundred-fold in just fifteen years from 2020 to 2035. The image of warehouses as big sheds offering only low-skilled and tedious jobs is increasingly outdated. In fact, they are often fast-moving, high-tech environments where much of the repetitive work is automated.
And while the warehousing sector continues to expand, the vacancy rates remain high in a range of different roles. Large teams of warehouse workers need supervision and management, but nearly half of the thousands of managers and directors working in transport and storage are due to retire by 2027, creating a growing need for leadership at all levels. The world of big data is intensifying our reliance on analysts and planners. IT systems and integration projects are becoming increasingly complex, so software engineering is essential. Buildings and handling equipment have to be built and maintained. Investors and customers are driving companies towards more sustainable practices, which in turn require new skills. And of course, Brexit has irrevocably changed import and export routines, leading to a spike in demand for freight forwarding expertise; a shift that will become more significant when forthcoming legislation allows more electronic documentation.
Accordingly, the UK Warehousing Association is delighted to have another Minister, Mims Davies from DWP, speaking at its annual conference in March. Entitled ‘Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Today’, the two day event will take a positive look at skills and opportunities. Far from denigrating warehousing as a career of last resort, it’s high time we put this crucial sector firmly on the map.