When you live in Cleveland, you get tired of the “rust belt” label and the frequent laments at the loss of much of the heavy industry that had thrived here. But while the area has lost much of that historical industrial base, it has gained in other areas, and there we are not unlike the rest of the country and even much of the development occurring on a global scale.
When Robert Somerville addressed a maritime industry group recently, he repeated the lament, calling these “sad, sad times and a terrible commentary on the decline of American industry.”
In the next breath, the CEO of the Lake Carriers Association and Canadian Shipowners Association answered his own questions about how we reached this point. He said that “in some areas such as in the high tech sector, we continue to lead the world with unmatched ingenuity and vision while in the more traditional heavy industries we continue to lose our way” What he's describing is a fundamental shift in values that encourages young people beginning their careers to apply their creativity and ingenuity to those high-tech categories while devaluing the heavy industries. From the outside, these heavy industries appear singularly unrewarding.
The same is true in the field of logistics. The focus is on the high-end roles of network design and optimization and not the operations level. It should be no surprise that US automobile manufacturing is suffering when every young student wants to be a designer and no one wants to enter the manufacturing management track. If we're not interested in making the steel (or innovating those processes) is it any wonder that role has shifted off shore? And if we are only interested in designing logistics networks and manipulating data, should we be surprised when we see a gap at the operations level?
Motor carrier executives describing the recurring driver shortage typically ask their audiences (mostly of other motor carriers and logistics professionals), “How many of you would encourage your son or daughter to become a truck driver? Similarly, you have to ask, how many would encourage their newly graduated MBA to take up a career in transportation?
What we are missing is not only the intelligence and innovation this new blood brings to the profession, we don't have front-line managers with strategic vision to recognize the significance of local and regional developments. That isn't to say we don't have good people at the operations level, they are just so heavily tasked with working through the problems, they can't step back to take that strategic view.
When Somerville described “an infrastructure that has been seriously underfunded for decades on both sides of the border” it wasn't breaking news for his audience. They've been working around those problems for years. But what we really need is to drive straight through the heart of those problems and mount a concerted effort to develop long-term solutions.
The people who are going to accomplish this will view logistics as their career, not just a job. Their ability to thrive --their future -- depends on that future state. These “best and brightest” will innovate and invigorate and bring pressure to bear where it is needed to bring about change and improvement. We need to encourage the best talent to join us, from the dock to the top. We need to mentor them, and then we need to support the initiatives they identify that will improve operations, resolve regulatory conflicts, build infrastructure and show others what an exciting field transportation and logistics can be.
We can't grieve over something we willingly abandoned. Let the vacant steel mills serve as a warning of what happens if we fail to reinvest some enthusiasm into our profession.
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