Prioritizing Meaningful and Safe Work
We must create a supply chain—link by link—with working conditions where everyone, from the warehouse employee to the end consumer, wins.
Warehouses and distribution centers face a shortage of truck drivers and workers, both with high turnover. Finding and retaining quality labor, coupled with rising employee expectations, are major areas of ongoing and growing concern.
Why are these positions so hard to fill and stay filled? Many warehouse and distribution center jobs—especially for those working outside in the trailer yard—are considered “D3” jobs: dull, dirty, and dangerous.
First, these jobs are filled with repetitive, manual tasks, which can negatively impact mental health, cause major stress, and lead to burnout and quitting, notes scientist Judy Willis in her paper Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts.
Second, trailer yards are dirty. Over-the-road and yard trucks spew diesel fumes, drip oil, and track in mud, plastic, and paper.
Third, these jobs can be uncomfortable if not downright dangerous. Most warehouses and distribution centers operate 24/7. People work in the extreme heat or cold in and around 80,000-pound equipment where accidents can and do happen.
These are the reasons why large enterprises, especially those in logistics-heavy industries, are turning to automation. Automation enables people to do more meaningful work away from uncomfortable or even dangerous working conditions, resulting in more attractive jobs and better retention. And, while companies benefit from proper staffing levels, employees see career advancement opportunities and more flexible work options come to the forefront.
The lasting footprint of the industrial revolution was more technical jobs, safer workplaces, and fewer hours. With the autonomous revolution still in its infancy but underway, I have seen firsthand that when an employee’s repetitive task is replaced by a robot, they develop skills more fitting for a human.
Realizing the Benefits
To realize these benefits, however, companies must invest in automation and employee training hand-in-hand. Companies must train employees to work alongside robots, manage and maintain robots, or transition into another job within logistics and transportation. Employees must be given the opportunity to continue their work, so training and education is essential to deploying automation responsibly.
Another aspect of responsibly deploying automation lies in the area of sustainability. Companies are moving to more sustainable logistics networks, including aggressively replacing diesel-burning yard trucks with zero-emission, autonomous yard trucks and reducing the time over-the-road trucks spend idling in the yard.
The spark of this transition is the health of people and the environment. The accelerants are the declining cost of batteries and increasing cost of fossil fuel.
In 2022 and beyond, businesses will prioritize more meaningful work and safer and healthier work environments to attract and retain essential workers. Companies must start now to implement big changes, like automation.
Inside the warehouse, robots help workers lift, pick, sort, and inventory products. Outside, autonomous yard trucks help back trailers into loading docks so goods can be transitioned from the warehouse to the open road, and ultimately, to their final destinations.
Warehouses and distribution centers are only one link in the supply chain. Yet, disruption in one link creates a wave of disruptions up and down the chain. That’s why we must create a supply chain—link by link—with working conditions where everyone, from the warehouse employee to the end consumer, wins.