A recent U.S. Airforwarders Association member survey indicates the global labor shortage is putting pressure on operations and their ability to meet ongoing customer demand. At the same time, although cargo shipments declined in recent months due to adverse international events, predictions of increasing volumes amid industry optimism leave forwarders concerned about service and capacity during the next anticipated shipment surge.
Last month, the airline industry experienced unprecedented flight cancellations and delays due to a shortage of pilots and support workers. Airport ground handling companies also report significant challenges in recruiting qualified workers to provide freight support services for their airline customers at the major gateways.
US trucking volumes are beginning to stabilize, but forwarder concerns remain despite more truck access. The pandemic is most often cited as the main cause for the supply chain woes, but other reasons for concern remain. For example, driver shortages make it increasingly tricky for forwarders to depend on an abundant capacity supply in the months ahead. The truck driver shortfall hit 80,000 drivers in 2021 and will grow to over 160,000 by 2030.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate that workers in the United States who left their jobs voluntarily rose by 152,000 to a record high of 4.5 million this past spring. The most significant reasons workers gave for quitting included a toxic company culture (62%), low salary (59%), poor management (56%), and a lack of work-life balance (49%). In addition, about 20% of non-retired US adults reported changing or leaving their employer voluntarily in 2021 as opposed to opting for redundancy or suffering contract termination.
Many causes are contributing to the lack of supply chain labor. First, the pandemic changed priorities for many workers globally. Parents who once worked in offices have grown accustomed to the flexibility to stay at home and supervise children when schools may not be open. Also, pandemic-related deaths have had tragic implications, with over 1 million Americans and over 15 million globally perishing. Finally, industry competition continues to cause logistics and transportation companies to compete with other industries, including fast food, construction, and retail.
Freight transportation providers are dealing with the effects of the labor shortage daily. For instance, a lack of dockworkers causes ships to get unloaded more slowly at ports of entry. In addition, the need for drayage drivers in the trucking industry has resulted in shipping containers sitting at ports for longer than pre-COVID. The long-haul truck driver shortage creates capacity concerns, making moving inventory from the docks to distribution centers challenging. Warehouses and distribution centers are starved of workers who cannot operate at full capacity, resulting in inventory shortages and manufacturing delays.
The Pandemic’s Harsh Lessons
The pandemic taught us many harsh lessons, especially in worker recruitment, employee satisfaction, and labor retention, and forced us to think creatively to solve supply chain labor issues. For example, to address the pilot shortage that continues to cause flight cancellations, governments should increase the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67. Recent advancements in health and medical science are increasing human longevity. If pilots within this age group can demonstrate an adequate mental acuity and physical fitness level, extending the retirement age is an effective way to keep good pilots in the workforce longer. Elsewhere, less than 2% of commercial airline pilots in the United States are African Americans, so the industry must engage the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for talent recruitment and promote the commercial aviation field for new pilots and aviation professionals in those institutions more effectively.
We also need to help the trucking industry recruit more workers by addressing lifestyle issues that continue to reduce the number of drivers on the road. This improvement begins by promoting more health awareness for drivers through fitness and medical programs focused on driver longevity. In addition to shippers reducing driver detention at warehouses, governments must deal with the truck parking challenge more effectively so drivers can rest during their precious breaks. Also, some states are considering laws imposing independent contractor restrictions on truck drivers. These initiatives must stop in favor of regulations supporting those drivers who prefer to self-determine their trucking enterprises.
Finally, maritime dockworkers and airport ground handling employees have been an indispensable asset in keeping our supply chains operational, despite dire circumstances due to the pandemic. As the U.S. West Coast maritime labor negotiations continue, forwarders hope the new agreement will encourage more worker recruitment at those facilities and realize that for our nation to remain competitive, the docks and airports must have adequate staffing to operate efficiently. Further, governments need to expedite the security credentialing process, minimizing access badge waiting times, thereby getting new employees to work faster.
These suggestions will not solve the labor challenges facing the freight transportation industry today but initiating improvements within each mode may prove beneficial. Making crucial changes in recruiting and retaining supply chain workers is a worthwhile goal for the freight industry and essential to achieving global competitiveness.
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