Hiring more women is one answer to the employment crunch

Australia’s male-dominated supply chain and logistics industry is currently dealing with a workforce crunch exacerbated by limited range of a large proportion of the workers: mostly aging men. Hermione Parsons, appointed Australian Logistics Council chief executive officer four months ago, is working hard to drag the industry into the modern age. She is gathering a team of senior women to work with her, and she is championing a campaign to encourage more women to look for careers in an increasingly technical and complicated field.

The “extraordinary complexity of the interdependencies and inter-relationships” in supply chain isn’t just about a truck collecting a box of cucumbers and taking it to a shop, she says. “It’s systems within systems, networks within networks.” According to the Council, the industry employs more than 1.2 million people in Australia and contributes more than $140 billion to the national economy.

Supply chains have been front of mind around the world recently, following massive global disruptions such as the upheaval of the Covid pandemic, rising inflation, the invasion of Ukraine and trans-Pacific trade tensions. In Australia, to add to the burden, natural disasters have increased delays and difficulties in the industry responsible for bringing goods and services to consumers and businesses.

“It’s been an extraordinary time, because before Covid the emphasis was on very lean, cost-effective supply chains,” Parsons says, adding that model was quite rigid.  “Then Covid hit and now we need highly agile supply chains but they are extremely costly. So now we’re in a balancing act of recovery.”

With a master’s degree in urban planning, specialising in the port system, and a doctorate in supply chain with a focus on the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, Parsons has worked in the field for 30 years. She says the recent perfect storm of the pandemic, along with international ructions and domestic floods, storms and fires was overwhelming.

“We had so many different disruptions that were causing all sorts of issues,” she says, adding that she was delighted to see how well Australian workers and companies coped. “It was the amazing resilience of people who jumped into fixing the problem. For a large chunk of time during the pandemic I was proud and astonished at how brilliantly the supply chain companies of Australia worked as the heroes to get that product to stores.”

These firms had to deal with waves of ill or locked-down workers and closed local and state borders and curfews, with different rules prevailing in different jurisdictions. “A lot of that got fixed during the pandemic which is really good,” Parsons says, adding she expects setbacks in the future, particularly if the expected fourth wave of Covid hits hard but she notes there has been substantial improvement in reducing bureaucratic impediments to domestic cross-border trade.

Meanwhile the increasing urgency of looming climate change and the importance of decarbonising industry across the board has also forced a reckoning, pushing ESG issues (environment, social, governance) to the top of the agenda around the world.

Trucks, trains, ships and planes are the primary means of transporting goods in Australia and environmental retrofits will be both costly and time-consuming, but Parsons says the logistics and supply chain industries are facing up to the challenge.

“I think business-people are realising that there is no choice here,” she says. “This isn’t a philosophical position or a political position. The issues of fuel security, energy security and alternative energies are really critical business issues.” She says the economic pain of retrofitting is offset by the understanding that fuel prices are subject to unforeseeable price hikes. Fuel prices have been high ever since Russia invaded Ukraine and they are likely to remain volatile for the some time to come.

“The issue of sustainability is absolutely critical in terms of the fuels we use, the energy we use, and decarbonisation,” Parsons says, “but also in terms of the sustainability of our workforce, the sustainability of our businesses for Australia’s economic future.”

The nation’s economic future also depends on the private sector utilising all skilled labour available, regardless of gender. Logistics has historically been a male domain, dating back to the days before containerisation, when heavy manual labour was required to unload transport. But in today’s computerised and highly mechanised industry, now short of workers, there is no justifiable rationale for gender disparities.

“In any industry, without really good processes, the tendency is for people to employ people who look like them, act like them, talk like them,” says Parsons, adding that new initiatives were underway to encourage newcomers to the field, both male and, particularly, female. These include awareness programs for the community and professional development programs for companies.

When the average employee age in some supply chain companies is in the 50s, and across the industry usually in the late 40s, she says simple maths indicates that a fix is needed to prevent the workforce dwindling to unsustainable proportions. Hiring more women is one answer.

Sheena Fardell, the Logistics Council’s newly-employed senior manager of supply chain and logistics policy and one of Parsons’ new female-dominated senior team, says the fact that women represent only about 21 per cent of workers in the field is a “statistical anomaly”.

“In general, there’s a crisis in supply chain industry with finding staff at the moment,” she says, adding that because women usually have good communication and collaboration skills, they should be regarded as valuable employees. “A lot of people hail technology as the silver bullet that will save us,” she says. “But it needs collaboration.”

She personally hit a glass ceiling as an industry employee, and as a result decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in small business management and a master’s degree in supply chain management to further her career. Employers should try hard to avoid the “glass cliff” effect, she adds, when women are recruited during hard times and then let go when stability is restored.

Fardell’s studies laid the foundation for an understanding of a complex and multi-dimensional industry where a wrinkle at one point in the supply chain can amplify to become a massive financial problem further down the line.

Her colleague, Australian Logistics Council chief operating officer Bianca Wheeler, says she will work with Fardell and Parsons to rebuild and reposition the Council to ensure the views of supply chain industry leaders are more widely heard, especially now the public understands more about the challenges in the field and the hard work needed to smooth over disruptions. “Covid having lifted the lid on supply chain issues, ALC can give those people a voice,” she says.

Website helping women to find a way into logistics industry

Created to encourage women to consider finding work in Australia’s supply chains, the industry-sponsored Wayfinder initiative includes ambassadors ready to engage with school and community groups and a website with a wide-ranging collection of relevant job information including video stories on women working in the field, along with education and career path options.

Featured on the Wayfinder website, Kerry McAleer, head of supply chain baker, deli and seafood at Coles, says that when she joined one of the company’s supply chain teams, she walked into a distribution centre of 300 to 400 hundred men.

“I’ve never seen so many men in all my life; it was a really daunting experience, but once I got to understand it, and understand the impact I could have, it was absolutely brilliant”.

She has found the work challenging, she adds on the video, and ultimately extremely rewarding.

The website also features a career map with 150 roles across 18 sectors in the field, road, rail, stevedoring, air freight, forecasting, optimisation, schedule planning, suitable for a range of work-seekers, from semi-skilled to highly-skilled postgraduates, across all disciplines – mathematics, optimisation, technology, human resources, law and supply chain logistics.

The map provides data on various aspects of the positions. It sets out education qualifications and experience, potential salaries, key responsibilities, skills required, career pathways and study possibilities across a network of 28 universities and colleges, linking all the courses to each of the jobs. Co-founded five years ago by the Australian Logistics Council’s CEO, Hermione Parsons, Wayfinder was designed to address the talent shortage in Australian supply chains.

“We’re working hard with the companies,” Parsons says. “It’s all company-sponsored, not government sponsored. It’s industries working on this issue together.”

The career map, she adds, is thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed to encourage a broader view of the supply chain field.

“We were trying to change the picture,” Parsons says. “People think supply chain and they think a truck driver. That is only one of the 150 roles we have in our map. So we’re expanding people’s understanding of their own industry and expanding the community and the government’s understanding of this complex and extremely interesting area.”

The Australian