Cast your mind back six or seven years ago and project freight forwarders would have jumped out of their seats at the prospect of the buoyant market experienced in recent times. However, a dearth of talent entering the industry when times were lean has manifest as a skills gap today, leaving logisticians with plenty of opportunities but few resources to take them on.

“People is the biggest challenge facing the  project forwarding sector and it will continue to be globally for us,” said Ryan Foley, ceo at DHL Industrial Projects

Speaking at the Breakbulk Middle East exhibition during  February, he was discussing the scale of opportunities available in the Middle East and Africa region – one of the company’s latest target areas for growth. The concern was not the amount of work, but the shortage of resources to be able to support that activity.

“It is a bit frustrating,” said Foley, “you come to Breakbulk and you look at the discussions and even what has been printed in HLPFI… we have been talking about there being a resource issue for a long time – people in the industry retiring and not enough young talent coming in. And it becomes: ‘What are you doing about it’.”

An ‘unattractive industry’ has been bandied about as a reason for the lack of new talent entering the workforce. However, when DHL Industrial Projects advertised six positions in its Houston operation, it attracted some 220 applications. “I spoke to 15 of them and they were all super motivated about what we do and how we do it. If I could have hired all of them, I would have,” said Foley.

Ambitious people

“So, on the one hand we say it is not attractive and not interesting to the younger generation, but when you actually put it out there and make the positions available, we had some really excited, young, ambitious people that said this is something I want to be a part of. The people are out there, you just need to market it and promote it in the right way.”

In terms of where the gaps are most critical, Foley identified project managers, HSE specialists and “technically strong people in chartering”.

“That is where we are trying to give our young talent the experience across our NextGen scheme. The graduates, for example, will do three months on chartering and go to Singapore for three months on HSE and then technical engineering… these kinds of things give them a well-rounded experience of project forwarding.”

Keeping interest

In essence, using the first year to build up an understanding, and a second year to focus on the areas that caught their interest, “so at the end of the two years we have a job for them that keeps them interested and excited”.

And that is the second phase of addressing the skills gap challenge – retention. “The last thing we need is to think ‘we just need operators’ and train up loads of people, shoehorn them into a position, and then after two months they think that it is not for them,” Foley said. “I started as a management trainee 21 years ago and if you are doing something you like doing, that is exciting to you, you are going to hang around… we need to make it exciting for people and not just give them the jobs that nobody wants to do. That is the trap you fall into, you get given resources, and you give them the admin tasks and that is what we are trying to steer away from. We want to expose them to the really exciting parts of the job, so they are excited by the industry and want to stay.

“You do not want to spend a lot of money – and this costs a lot of money for us and others that do similar programmes – to a) lose those people from the industry completely, or b) lose them to the competition. You need to keep them hooked into the culture of the company and what we stand for.”

Lifestyle issues

Another hurdle that has been raised by the industry is whether the life of a project forwarder is compatible with what the next generation of talent want out of a career. Tackling this head on, Foley said: “That is why we expose that to them from the very first day… we say, ‘get your passport ready’.

“We had a new cohort start on January 8 and they are already down in Brazil watching a topside and FPSO loading. That is the only way that you are going to show them what lies in wait for their future – the travel and the different cultures, it is a big part of project forwarding.”

For many in the sector, this is a much-loved aspect of the industry and Foley agrees: “I love going to countries and seeing new cultures – and seeing them develop as well. I have been going to Saudi Arabia since 2014 and to be able to go back and see this country open up to the rest of the world and wanting you to bring in your experience and know-how to help them, that is a nice feeling – to be a part of those projects and seeing it change and develop.”

Overall, Foley concurred that the project forwarding industry is making good steps in addressing the challenge. DHL Industrial Projects is just one of the big multinational forwarders to have its own scheme to bring in and train up new talent. “We [the industry] are investing and all of that money will pay itself back in the future,” he said. “We have some great young talent that has come through.

“But six people every two years is not going to solve the resource crisis that we have got. We need to continue doing business and continue to have people that want to share their knowledge with the generation that is coming.”