The future of logistics is full and thorough automation, but every time we arrive at the next milepost on the road to the future, we end up needing… people.

No matter how hard we work to automate, we cannot escape the need to hire people to man every automated port, airport, rail yard, and e-commerce fulfilment centre. Add the transport modes, and demand for truck drivers, train drivers, and airplane crews has not at all been affected by attempts to create and implement autonomous equipment and reduce reliance on humans.

Much ink has been spilt over what kind of people logistics industries need today. It seems, the need for people, irrespective of the level of their experience and education, is not met by a reliable supply of new workers wanting to work in logistics operations. The most frequently reported problem is retaining existing truck drivers and acquiring new ones. You may be surprised, but contrary to accepted understanding, logistics companies also find it difficult to fill middle management positions. These mid-management positions need to be filled by people with a good understanding of the business and savvy with automation and digitalisation encroaching many tasks performed in the logistics execution. That’s all happening today, yet problems of today may not be problems of tomorrow. The logistics employee of the future may have a completely different skills profile and operating remit from that of the current employee.

We can speculate on the source of the above mentioned supply shortage, from early retirement of experienced workers to millennials looking for rewarding careers in other fields. Salaries and non-salary benefits offered by logistics companies could be another part of the problem. Many logistics companies waited too long to test approaches to aligning supply and demand in their workforces. Offering more of the same: higher wages, bonuses and incentives may not be sufficient in the long run. Other components such as providing continuous training and education that increase employees’ skill need to be part of the strategy and tactics employed to prevent workforce crisis.

Irrespective of the causes of shortages, the situation cannot be ignored since it will put pressure on the cost of logistics services and affect the performance of enterprises and entire economies. It may be unfamiliar territory for logistics companies, but solving crises takes innovation. Following tried and tested methods for finding and retaining people is not going to be sufficient. Population trends, specifically ageing and diminishing birth rate, are working against logistics companies wanting to hire in many developed countries. So, any innovative methods will need to be almost country- and region-specific, not the “one-size fits all” approach preferred in the past.

The drive to automation should be considered an important factor in attracting new talent to the industry. While logistics and transport lag behind implementation of the latest labour automation innovations comparing to other industries, they are experimenting with various useful technologies. Strong interest shown in employing artificial intelligence and massive robotisation has not escaped the consideration of people considering a job in logistics. They may as well question the longevity of their work positions and wonder about the future of their careers, something that may drive them to consider other options.

Could this mean that logistics companies have to accelerate automation and boldly jump start innovations that could help them with workforce shortages? Would that further disincentivise people considering jobs offered in logistics today? It might as well be. It could also turn into something positive, as new sections of the working population not previously considering a career in the logistics industry could get attracted to innovative technologies that the industry implements.

Still, to be successful, logistics companies have to perform an interesting balancing act. As key players accelerate the automation projects that will produce tangible results in the future, they also need to start systemically determining exactly how many workers, with what skills, are required now and in the future, so that they can attract the right kind of talent. Only true understanding of the problem and correct identification of the gaps and opportunities in the logistics workforce and recruitment processes will help them in addressing the issue correctly.