Retailers and delivery services nationwide are deep into the annual scramble for talent, bulking up their ecommerce operations to make sure they can get the goods to millions of homes in time for the holidays.
While a lot is at stake, the competition for temporary work could be distracting from a more fundamental need faced by ecommerce operations and the companies that support them: The ecommerce fulfillment talent pool needed to lead, manage and run delivery operations is not keeping up with demand — no matter the time of year.
The evidence of the ecommerce fulfillment talent shortage runs from the bottom rung of the career ladder to the very top. Think of it as the problem of supplying talent for the supply chain.
For starters, look no further than the July labor report, which showed a record number of employees working in the package-delivery sector. Christmas in July? Hardly. Instead, it’s a reflection of a new reality: As ecommerce continues to grow as a percentage of retail spending, more and more people are needed to move more and more products to more and more consumers. So even as record numbers fill entry-level jobs, more workers are needed in the ecommerce fulfillment field.
Likewise, more middle managers are needed to manage those workers and more executives are needed to build the strategy and execute on the ideas that are going to help keep digital retailers competitive.
Finding ecommerce fulfillment talent is tough
The pressure to find fulfillment talent, particularly at the managerial and executive level, was the subject of a recent webinar during which experts from PepsiCo and DHL joined consultant Lisa Harrington, who’s worked with Lennox International, to talk about how innovative companies have attacked the skill shortage in the supply chain industry.
“Obviously we have a growing supply-chain management crisis,” Harrington, who is president of harrington group llc, said to open “Winning the War for Supply Chain Talent.” “For every graduate with supply chain skills, there are currently six holes to be filled, so six vacant jobs. So, competition is fierce.”
That fierce competition for ecommerce fulfillment talent has spawned its share of innovative ideas. Supply chain companies have launched internal academies to nurture future leaders. They’ve encouraged workers to temporarily try out different jobs, both as a way for employees to see new possibilities and as a way for employers to build a trained pool of people ready to step into new jobs.
The competition for talent has also pushed recruiting teams to turn to artificial intelligence and marketing tactics to find and nurture potential job candidates.
As with many jobs/skills mismatches, some of the issue comes down to a pipeline problem. A survey by DHL found that while only 26 percent of 300 companies polled said they had trouble finding entry-level employees, more than 50 percent said filling middle-management roles was a problem.
And where do middle managers generally come from? Yes, the entry-level ranks.
It turns out, the entry-level ranks are whitted in part by supply-chain’s image problem. Not “sexy,” is the way one panelist put it. Moreover, those who enter the field often can’t see how they’ll progress to bigger and better things. And so they leave before reaching middle management.
Meantime, the supply chain field is moving fast, as the story of ecommerce indicates. Shopping is migrating online at a steady clip and consumers’ expectations are rising. Customers want what they’re looking for to be in stock and delivered now, if not sooner.
Supply chain management is rapidly evolving
“Supply chain is a fast-paced, changing industry and this shows up in the kind of skill sets that companies are looking for in the field,” said Harrington, who is also a senior research fellow at the Supply Chain Management Center at the University of Maryland.
That means that the top leaders in supply chain need to be a new breed, a reality that makes executive-level leaders the hardest to find, according to DHL’s research.
Sure, companies are looking for the traditional operational know-how — warehouse management and people management expertise is still necessary. But companies are looking for more in their supply chain executives.
In particular, Harrington said, companies want executives to be strategic thinkers, to understand analytics, to have a much wider view of the whole supply chain and how their operation fits into the bigger picture.
“You’re looking for a very robust skill set,” she said. “These people are fairly rare.”
All of which, Harrington said, raises the question: “Will we have enough talent to lead our supply chains in the future?”
Here’s what the panelists are doing to try to ensure that the answer to that question is “yes.”
Internal education programs: DHL has a certification program that teaches each employee what he or she needs to know to do his or her job — and also gives them the skills they need to move their career forward, DHL’s Louise Gennis said. After the initial course, employees can move on to other courses.
Lennox, a company that sells heating and cooling systems, starts employees out with an extensive program that prepares them to work in a world that is run by data and algorithms.
“New hires go through 18 months of education in data sciences, so they’re looking at learning tools like Hadoop, Tableau and SAS and others — just because technology is and is becoming so important to supply chain,” Harrington said. “The new hires, as well as everyone else, needs to know these tools and be facile with them.”
Demonstrating supply chain career paths: Lennox shows employees their career “lattice,” a map of the next and future logical moves up or over from their current position. It also runs a two-year program during which employees try out five or six different jobs and identify their various strengths.
“This is about keeping people excited and interested in learning,” Harrington said. “If you keep people engaged, they stay.”
Recruiting like a marketer: David Simmons, talent acquisition manager at Pepsico, said company recruiters have turned for inspiration to another department at the big multinational.
“We’re taking a look at, within our talent acquisition organization, how can we start to apply some of those marketing concepts to build and nurture talent pipelines for our organization?”
Just as corporate marketers identify accounts that would be a good fit for products and services and then craft plans to win those accounts over, Simmons’ team identifies target candidates that they will nurture for years in the hopes of one day hiring them.
If at first you don’t succeed in ecommerce fulfillment, try again
The company, for instance, focuses on job prospects who have previously expressed an interest in the company, but ultimately went to work elsewhere. They look at employees who have left Pepsico. And then they go to work with targeted email campaigns and personalized landing pages.
They’ll consider what stage in the job-searching or acquiring process their targets are at and tailor messages accordingly. The system has gotten the company close to what Simmons calls “zero days to hire” — a state where Pepsico is able to fill a position practically on the day it becomes open.
Simmons explains it this way: “We don’t have an open role, but we know in 60 days, so-and-so is going to move from A to B.”
At that point, he said, they are able to look at their talent pipeline, see an identified candidate and start the interview process. How is a company of more than 260,000 employees able to keep track of all that?
“We’re looking at a lot more automation, Simmons said. “There is a lot of AI out there in the talent-acquisition space. It’s how we continue to personalize that message, really automate that more, to continue to fill that pipeline.”
It makes sense to turn to automation when so many other parts of the supply chain and ecommerce already have. It will no doubt help give supply chain hiring managers a fighting chance to solve a problem that appears to exist from top to bottom.
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