HLPFI writes regularly about the challenges facing the project logistics supply chain – be it infrastructure barriers, a lack of capacity, issues with financing and, in the not-so-distant memory, a dearth of projects in various parts of the world. While these problems ebb and flow, one recurring theme in conversations across the sector is the difficulty in finding and retaining talent. 

The past two years have shaken up all aspects of working life with furlough schemes in place in some countries, home working becoming the norm for many sectors and record numbers of people leaving their jobs, dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’.

It is a known fact that the project logistics supply chain cannot afford to lose talent. It has been in desperate need of more personnel for many years already. And now, with projects picking up and shipping lines at capacity, that need is becoming more apparent.

There has been a real spike in demand for desk/operator level talent, and new recruits are desperately needed. “The good thing about project logistics is that it is the sexiest part of the industry,” said David Fisher, executive director of the Transportation Institute at the University of Denver (TSC Institute). “It is the part of the industry where people are more likely to travel internationally and get involved with unusual engineering projects.”

He continued: “The essential question relates to how we improve the capability of the industry. My world is to try to encourage higher education in our discipline. 20 years ago, everybody I knew in our industry learned on the job and that was the nature of our trade for 2,000 years.

“I believe what is interesting from an educational standpoint is that the jobs of tomorrow in logistics are quite different from what they are today. Many are going to be around IT systems, the capability of writing code, writing algorithms, optimisation of systems, stacking of systems; jobs that are rare in our industry now are going to be commonplace in the next five years.”

“The home of the Institute is the prestigious University of Denver. It has been a strong relationship and the university has contributed incredible faculty to the programme. Most of our faculty are adjunct professors and most are not full-time academics, we pull practitioners from the transportation and supply chain industry itself to teach current and advanced management procedure.

“That has been a winning formula for us because we are not trying to fight the broader battle of attracting new people to industry, our benefit is that the people who come to our programmes are typically already in career, and this give us an advantage.” explained Fisher.

“Having said that, I keep in touch with other academics around the world and the chronic problem for all of us is that it is very hard to attract young people into the industry in the first place, most of them are not exposed to the industry. And it is unusual to have someone come out of high school and want to go into transportation. This seems mostly due to a lack of knowledge and a lack of exposure to our industry, in my opinion.”

That might be changing, however: “The one and only good thing coming out of the pandemic, perhaps, is that four years ago, it was a regular thing to be at a party and have to explain the science of supply chain to others. Now, everyone knows what supply chain means, including young adults. The other statistic that is really meaningful for us is that the two fastest-expanding industries right now are medical and supply chain.

“Those are encouraging stats and we have some interesting things going on. We have a lot more automation coming our way that should solve some of the issues,” he said. “When we talk about driverless trucks and trains, robotic shortlines or automated ports, this will help the project cargo area because it frees up manpower that is currently engaged in routine activities.”

Regarding the overall outlook for the logistics industry Fisher shared some pessimistic views: “I do not know what the future holds but I am quite concerned. I think it is more likely than not that we are headed for very significant recession in Europe and North America. I think this is going to be a supply chain-generated recession,” he warned, drawing attention to Chinese port closures, bottlenecks in the supply chain, and subsequent price inflation.

Nevertheless, he believes the logistics industry will be “the backbone of the economic recovery” and, furthermore, the prognosis for project cargo shipping is positive. “I do have a lot of optimism about project cargo. I think it is going to be fairly robust. The number of companies talking about nearsourcing or maybe moving manufacturing locations – I am hearing more of these conversations now than I have heard in 40 years. From that perspective, I am optimistic for us.” The proviso, however, is staff. “It all revolves around this caveat of whether or not we can get the people.”