The Changing Face of the Warehouse Workforce

The Changing Face of the Warehouse Workforce

How does a warehouse manager transform a group of people with different backgrounds, outlooks, and abilities into a high-powered workforce?


If You Strike Gold

About 10 years ago, consultant Curt Sardeson helped a client implement a warehouse management system (WMS), which triggered an unexpected labor management issue. "Within six months, the company replaced every lift driver because of language differences," says Sardeson, president of Open Sky Group, Fuquay-Varina, N.C. Because the original drivers didn’t read English, they couldn’t follow the directions the new WMS displayed on their screens.

Language diversity is one of many challenges warehouse managers face in their efforts to turn a collection of individuals into a highly productive workforce. Differences in literacy levels, cultural backgrounds, gender, and age can also complicate the job of training, integrating, and managing a diverse workforce. So can heavy employee turnover, or the need to use temporary labor for peak workloads or special projects.

From translation to technology to the buddy system, warehouse managers call on a varied range of strategies to get diverse workforces pulling together as one.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has dealt with language diversity in the labor force since its earliest days. In many American warehouses today, a large contingent of workers who speak English as a second language (ESL)—if they speak English at all—is not the exception, but the rule.

Take food service distributor Ben E. Keith Foods, which operates eight distribution centers (DCs) in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. "Most of our warehouses have ethnic diversities," says Roy Markham, the company’s vice president of operations and transportation. Ben E. Keith’s workforce includes many Spanish speakers, as well as a group of Vietnamese immigrants at one of its locations.

Spanish speakers also figure prominently in the facilities that third-party logistics (3PL) company Norbert Dentressangle (acquisition by XPO Logistics pending) operates in central Pennsylvania. But other language groups play a role as well.

"We have a significant Bosnian and Croatian culture in our region," says Dave Bumbarger, vice president, operations, contract logistics services with Norbert Dentressangle. "And we’re starting to see more people from the Middle East make their way into the workforce."

Getting a Read on Workers

Among the 13 warehouses that Wagner Logistics operates, those in urban areas attract many Spanish-speaking workers who struggle with English, says Justin Eck, director of operations at the 3PL, based in North Kansas City, Mo. Facilities in rural regions tend to see a different challenge—associates who speak English fluently but can’t read.

"At one operation Wagner ran in Arkansas for a number of years, we tested our employees and found that more than 50 percent were illiterate," says Joe Johnson, the company’s director of information technology.

When not everyone in a warehouse speaks and understands the same language, one obvious solution is to hire bilingual supervisors and team leaders. Those individuals can communicate directly with non-English-speaking associates, and serve as translators when needed.

"Because the workforce is diverse, I expect my management team will be diverse as well," says Bumbarger. Norbert Dentressangle looks for front-line supervisors who speak both English and Spanish. The company is also seeking people who can communicate in other languages.

As part of that search, the company might promote ESL speakers from the rank and file who show leadership potential. "If they need to learn more English than they have today, we’ll support that," Bumbarger says.

To help him teach new processes to associates who lack strong English skills, training supervisor James Orosco, at the U.S. Foods DC in Fife, Wash., has tapped bilingual associates as translators. But that’s just an initial tactic, he says: a little time and patience erases the need for a go-between.

"At first, the associates are afraid they can’t communicate with me," says Orosco. But as they get to know him, workers often find they can speak their minds even with limited English. "They don’t have to feel that they’re not properly communicating what they need," he adds.

Like a Rosetta Stone

Besides recruiting bilingual employees, a company might help English-speaking supervisors pick up new language skills. "We’re looking into whether we should acquire a resource such as Rosetta Stone [the technology-based language learning program], so we can train some of our good leaders and supervisors in Spanish," Johnson says.

An English-speaking supervisor doesn’t need to fully master a second language to improve communications. Eck recalls his early days as a warehouse manager, when his staff included 20 to 30 Spanish-speaking associates. "I learned how to ask them if they needed more water, if they needed to use the restroom, if they were doing okay—just so I could walk around and let them know I was concerned for their well being," he says. When the time came to hold a more complex conversation, he tapped a bilingual worker to translate.

Of course, in a polyglot warehouse—a place where, say, Spanish, Russian, and two Chinese dialects fill the air—communications grow even more complicated. One of Sardeson’s clients met that challenge by putting all the associates who spoke the same language on the same team. "It created an environment where, with one supervisor leading a team of 12, they weren’t embarrassed to ask questions," Sardeson says. Everyone could take care of business in his or her native tongue.

Does that strategy promote segregation or discrimination? Not at all, Sardeson says. "They’re putting people in a situation where they can win," he notes. "I thought it was bold of them to break them up that way, and it was much more effective."

A different set of solutions applies to the literacy challenge. From instructional materials, to signage in the building, to read-outs on handheld scanners, warehouse managers look for ways to convey important information to workers who don’t read English well, or can’t read at all.

When not everyone reads the same language, a WMS that issues picking and putaway instructions on a printed list, or through a readout on a handheld radio frequency (RF) scanner, presents a tough challenge. "It becomes cost prohibitive to maintain several languages for paper and RF processes," says Bruce Stubbs, industry marketing director at Honeywell Scanning and Mobility.

The Language of Logistics

The challenge is even tougher when managing associates who lack reading skills in any language.

Some warehouses level the playing field for workers by implementing voice-directed picking and putaway solutions. Instead of requiring a worker to read from a screen or printout, these systems speak directions in English or another language. The associate also can confirm completed activities by speaking into the system.

"The user simply trains the voice database in the language they feel comfortable using," says Stubbs, whose company’s products include the Vocollect family of voice-based warehouse solutions. "Voice is smart enough to also allow for dialect differences, and the different ways that people speaking the same language pronounce certain words."

Vocollect supports more than 35 languages, says Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing for Honeywell’s Vocollect Solutions, headquartered in Pittsburgh. It’s even possible to mix and match languages to some extent. "For example, if workers understand English but are more comfortable speaking in Spanish, the system might direct them to pick three units, and the workers may confirm by saying ‘tres,’" Blinderman says.

Intelligrated, a vendor of materials handling solutions based in Mason, Ohio, offers a voice-directed picking solution that operates in approximately 65 languages and requires no training. "Users put on a headset and it speaks to them in their native language," says Jason Franklin, the company’s director of labor management and business intelligence software.

If the warehouse team includes people from several different language groups, the company will provide the appropriate language pack for each worker.

Logistics consultancy F. Curtis Barry, in Richmond, Va., has helped some of its clients build voice-enabled applications based on smartphones or tablets. "They apply it through all aspects of the distribution process: receiving, cycle counting, returns processing—not just picking anymore," says Curt Barry, the company’s president and founder. "It’s cheaper because it requires far less client-server architecture." And the mobile devices cost less than the typical scanning gun, he adds.

Another solution that takes reading out of the picture is the pick- and put-to-light system, which uses visual cues to show a worker where to go and how many units to retrieve or put away. "It lights up the cubbies that workers need to grab items from, and then it shows how many to grab," says Franklin.

Keeping It Symbol

Although voice- and light-based systems eliminate the need to read, ESL-speakers and non-readers may do fine with paper- or screen-based systems if the instructions are simple enough—for example, if they use numbers and symbols rather than words.

Markham tells a story to illustrate that point. Some years back, when he was managing Ben E. Keith’s Dallas-Fort Worth DC, Markham learned that one of his associates had picked 170,000 cases without making a single error. He sought out the young man to congratulate and thank him face to face. The associate just stood there, smiling. "He didn’t understand a word I said," Markham laughs. "But he was extremely accurate. He couldn’t write or speak English, but he understood our system."

To help new associates who can’t read, Wagner Logistics has been simplifying its training materials. The idea is to rely less on text and more on pictures. "The materials show pallets being moved off a truck, for example, so workers can see the process they’re doing," says Johnson. The company is also replacing text-based instructions on scanner screens with numerical codes. For example, when the screen displays Option 2, that’s the signal to perform a specific task.

After a trainer demonstrates a process, it’s important to monitor performance to confirm that workers understand the instructions. "Sometimes people are embarrassed about not being bilingual, or being illiterate," says Eck. "They’d rather do something wrong than let you realize they don’t understand what you told them." By keeping an eye on performance metrics, managers can zero in on employees who need extra help, and find further opportunities to simplify their instructions.

A company that uses a labor management system (LMS) to track performance can easily identify workers who aren’t hitting productivity targets. "That may shine a light on the fact that English might be a second language and they’re having trouble understanding the process," says Franklin. As the LMS automates performance monitoring, supervisors gain more time to coach employees who need extra help, he says.

If a reading knowledge of English is crucial to a job, it’s a good idea to make sure the human resources (HR) department accounts for that need when screening job applicants. After Sardeson’s client found it had to replace lift drivers who didn’t read English, the logistics team and HR took a fresh look at the hiring process. One problem rose to their attention: all the employment forms were available in Spanish as well as English.

"It was possible for an employee to come into a position that required some functional English reading capabilities but never touch an English document in the hiring process," says Sardeson. The company started giving language tests to people who applied for jobs that required them to interact with a computer system in English.

Temps and Turnover

Even when everyone speaks and reads the same language, warehouse managers face integration challenges when they hire temporary workers for their peak seasons or to handle special projects. Those employees need to get up to speed quickly.

If a warehouse sees heavy turnover in its labor force, a similar issue arises: managers are continuously training new employees, trying to make them as productive as possible as fast as possible.

In some ways, managing temporary workers is a lot like managing employees who can’t read. "You need to have a simple-to-train process," notes Sardeson.

When a company hires temps to handle peak season volumes, that’s the time to break jobs down into easier sub-tasks, says Barry. "During average or low-volume weeks, when you have core employees doing the work, they might be able to do a task that involves multiple steps," he says. But temps who try to do the same job quickly might fall down on speed, or accuracy, or both. To gain better performance, a company could, for example, spread a three-step task across two or three temporary workers.

When a warehouse works with temporary staffing agencies, analytic software can help ensure only the most productive individuals show up for work. Intelligrated’s LMS not only monitors the performance of individual temps, but also tracks which agencies provide which workers. "I can start to gather information about the quality of the workforce the agencies provide," says Franklin.

For example, say the temps sent by Agency A perform at 50 percent of expectation on average, while temps from Agency B perform at 75 percent. "I can tell Agency A, ‘You’re going to have to vet people better or charge me less money, or I’ll push all my resources to the other agency,’" Franklin notes.

Mixing It Up

At Norbert Dentressangle, Bumbarger often pairs temps with seasoned employees, or mixes core employees and temps in work groups. "For instance, we might have a fulfillment opportunity that involves putting together kits," he says. "I can work people in cells of 10 to 15, with two or three full-time associates assisting the temps to get to the levels we need."

Along with hiring temps as required, Norbert Dentressangle’s operation in central Pennsylvania often flexes its workforce by shifting workers among different facilities. A cross-training policy ensures that workers remain productive as they move from place to place.

One complicating factor is that not all the buildings currently use the same WMS. "We have a core group of ‘super-users’ who know how to use each one of them," Bumbarger says. "They can go to any building, jump on an RF system, and use it."

In warehouses that see a lot of turnover, perhaps the best strategy for boosting productivity is to shut down that revolving door. Employees who understand the jobs they’re taking on, and learn to do them well, are more likely to stay.

"It’s interesting how many times new employees get hired and then I hear, after they’ve worked three days, ‘I didn’t know what this job was," or ‘I don’t like this job,’" says Barry. "When you’re interviewing people, you need to determine whether they understand the work. Have they done that kind of work before, and do they have the skills to make sure they’re going to do a good job?"

Just because people have warehouse experience doesn’t mean they can walk in and start producing. "They may know how to use a pallet jack, but know nothing about your system and your processes," says Orosco.

When Orosco brings a new group on board, he gives everyone basic training in procedures and safety, and then sends each new employee to the floor with an experienced worker. At that point, he starts separating novices from workers who were top performers in previous jobs. "If they can show me they know everything that’s going on, I’ll let them go to work," he says. Less-experienced recruits get a full day of additional training.

When the newbies finally hit the floor, Orosco tries to pair them with experienced "buddies." He also makes sure new hires feel welcome and supported. "Everyone introduces themselves," he says. "I welcome them as a new part of the family and tell my workers to treat them as such and get them up to speed." Workers are surprisingly generous about stopping to correct or help new colleagues, he adds.

Changing Culture

As women have moved into warehouse positions held mainly by men in the past, that change also has spurred some integration challenges. At Wagner Logistics, for example, the cultural norms that prevail among some immigrant groups may cause friction when men find themselves reporting to a female team leader. The solution is to make sure all employees understand that the women receive their authority directly from Wagner’s management.

"We tell them we award positions based on the quality of the employee and what they are capable of, not on gender," says Eck. "That generally seems to ease any tension."

Age disparities may also spur resistance, especially when a young supervisor tries telling long-tenured employees to change a work process. "Many of them automatically assume they know the best way to do it, because they’ve been doing it that way forever,"says Eck.

The supervisor needs to work side by side with the employees, first gaining their trust, and then gradually suggesting small tweaks. "When they see some improvements, you get their buy-in and you see the hard shell soften," says Eck. "Then you have a team that can work together and improve."

In the end, that’s the goal for every warehouse manager—getting a facility full of diverse individuals to pull together as a team, and achieve amazing results.

If You Strike Gold

Once they’ve created a cohesive workforce, warehouse managers naturally want to keep that great operation humming along. Two ways to keep the team strong are to hang on to the best workers, and tap their connections to find others who are just as good.

Many companies that use seasonal temps rehire the same people year after year. They rely on their human resources departments to develop lists of good temps and keep those lists updated. “Some of our clients who do this are very intentional, making sure they stay in touch with people throughout the year to keep up the relationship,” says Curt Barry, president and founder of consulting firm F. Curtis Barry, Richmond, Va.

A company might also ask star employees to help recruit others who they know will do a terrific job. At food service distributor Ben E. Keith Foods, in Fort Worth, Texas, that strategy has worked especially well with associates from immigrant communities.

“If you hit a vein of gold in a family or network of friends within a niche ethnic group, it can expand to create an excellent workforce,” says Roy Markham, Ben E. Keith’s vice president of operations and transportation. “If they have a proven work ethic, we’ll mine that vein pretty deep.”

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