Logistically Speaking: Stake Your Claim in the New Supply Chain Frontier

Oct. 11, 2013
Canada is setting an example as a land of logistics opportunities.

How do you make logistics cool for young people? That really seems to be the question of the year—maybe of the decade—for the industry, especially as Baby Boomers retire from the workforce, the economy begins to bounce back after a long stretch of languid-at-best growth, and many (most?) young people turn up their noses at the thought of working in a warehouse or driving a truck.

One place where logistics is very cool indeed is Calgary, the logistics hub of western Canada. Calgary is known as an energy town, as the oil & gas industry is the dominant industry in the region, but that image is increasingly shifting towards a proficiency in supply chain management. As I learned during a recent Canadian sojourn (part of a press tour sponsored by Calgary Economic Development), roughly two-thirds of all industry property in Calgary and its surrounding environs is a distribution center, from the relatively modest portion of Hopewell Logistics' facility dedicated to cold storage, to the 600,000-square-foot DC managed by Sears Canada at the entrance of Canadian Pacific Railway's intermodal yard, to the big-as-a-small-city Walmart DC, operated by Supply Chain Management.

What's more, over 2 million square feet of warehousing are currently under construction, and more than $1 billion was spent on distribution facilities in western Canada in the past two years. On top of that, the city of Calgary is spending $3.5 billion over 10 years on various transportation infrastructure projects, including a new bypass highway known as the ring road.

To understand how logistics works in Canada, pull out an atlas and look at where the major metropolitan areas of the country are located. As Eamonn Horan-Lunney, director of government affairs & community relations with Air Canada, explained to me, most of Canada's population lives in the south, within a couple hours of the U.S. border, in a ribbon that extends from coast to coast. "And yet, most of Canada's wealth comes from the north—diamonds, oil & gas, gold and lumber. So from a western Canada logistics standpoint, consumer goods flow in a west-to-east direction, but the natural resources flow from north to south."

Walmart's 1.2 million square foot DC services 125 retail stores in western Canada, with anywhere between 1,400-2,500 trailers at the dock or in the yard at any given time. And Calgary seems to be in the exact right geographic position to capitalize on the need to move goods from the West Coast throughout western Canada and into the U.S., as something like 50 million people can be reached from Calgary within 24 hours. According to Ralph Wettstein, president of trucking giant Canadian Freightways, his company's trucks can cover 85% of western Canada overnight, and the rest in two days. So it's pretty clear that Calgary's boast of being a logistics hub is well earned.

What I found most fascinating, though, is how quickly Calgary is transforming itself into a supply chain center, and how many opportunities are available for supply chain talent. According to analysis by the Calgary Logistics Council (CLC), there are nearly 100,000 job openings in western Canada (Alberta and British Columbia) in 10 key supply chain occupations—everything from senior managers (transportation, production, purchasing, IT, maintenance) to analysts, brokers, consultants and truck drivers. And those jobs need to be filled fairly quickly to take advantage of favorable market conditions.

As Linda Lucas, chair of the CLC, explained, the job of attracting, developing and retaining talent shouldn't rest solely with corporate Canada. "It needs to be a collaboration between government, industry and academia." To that end, various civic and logistics organizations are actively recruiting people to the region, and they're reaching down into trade schools and high schools to find eager young people who will embrace the challenges of building Canada's 21st distribution network with the same kind of energy that went into building the Canadian railroad more than 100 years ago. 

To be sure, Canada's youth are no different from their American peers: Many consider distribution and trucking jobs to be career dead-ends, and if they think of the supply chain at all, they're thinking it's not for them. And that's where savvy managers on both sides of the border need to support local programs that will not only prepare young people for logistics jobs, but will even energize them to the point that they look to the supply chain as a new frontier with almost boundless opportunities. 

Follow me on Twitter @supplychaindave.