Between now until 2017 the logistics sector will need to find half a million recruits, simply to replace those forecast to leave the sector due to retirement. Put another way, this equates to replacing a fifth of the logistics sector’s current workforce, a considerable challenge by any measure.

Last month’s launch of the Occupational Craft Skills Groups by Skills for Logistics (SfL) in London is the latest attempt to reconnect the provision of skills with the grassroots needs of employers, and play its part in meeting this challenge.

The bold initiative, first reported in MT in April, is designed to ensure employers have access to a pipeline of employees. Crucially, if the groups play their part as intended, these employees will come armed with the practical and theoretical skills employers desperately need, whether they’re drivers, warehouse staff, office-based or working in the garage maintaining the fleet.

Tellingly, the new occupational groups do not contain any training providers. At the launch, Paul Brooks, chairman of SfL and sales director at Unipart Logistics (pictured), said: “We’ve avoided the skills suppliers as we want ‘real skills’ as demanded by employers on the ground.”

What employers require

Although this may sound controversial, Brooks explained that while there are a number of excellent skills providers, due to the way they are funded they naturally sell the courses and training they supply, not necessarily what employers require. “Operations managers are generally poor procurers of skills development, but are often tasked with doing just that,” suggested Brooks, to highlight why nailing down the key training and skills employers actually require at the onset is so important.

Each of the nine groups consist of around 20 employers and are led by senior association heads (see below). Each will seek to analyse issues across the UK, identify priorities for action and advise on specific solutions and skills products, such as apprenticeships and National Occupational Standards. In addition, the groups will contribute to the development of sector research and skills policies (feeding into the work of SfL and The National Skills Academy Logistics as a whole).

“I think the image of the sector has improved significantly in the past two years. The government has at last recognised the importance of logistics, which culminated in it being included in last year’s growth review, conducted by the UK Department for Business and Skills. Our challenge is to build on this,” said Mick Jackson, chief executive of SfL, at the launch. To do this, the groups, which will likely meet physically twice a year but run as an ongoing forum feeding in information and ideas, will work to devise a gold standard for competencies for each individual job identified as being integral to the logistics sector.

For example, for a driver there might be 10 essential competences, which will become the effective gold standard. Eventually these will be a set of standard, generic competences across all of the logistics functions that are endorsed by the relevant trade association or professional institute and accredited by SfL, which companies can then sign up to. Jackson said this will feed into SfL’s wider work – such as the Professional Development Stairway – encouraging recruits to join and progress within the sector.

“Every employer has a unique position, as well as varying skill requirements,” said Brooks, pointing out that out of the logistics sector’s 200,000 employers, 170,000 fall into the SME bracket (with many micro employers too). “It presents a training challenge, such as training or earning for the smaller companies.

A lot of confusion

“There’s a lot of confusion out there and many SMEs lack knowledge. But if they understand how to access training to improve productivity [and it’s fit for purpose],they’ll do it,” Brooks said.

He suggested that having led the world in the adoption of JIT processes, the UK logistics sector was guilty of having taken its eye off the ball in terms of training the people who work within the sector.

“I think with youth unemployment running at around the one million mark, we’ve missed a trick,” said Brooks. “Perception rather than pay is the issue for logistics. For too long we’ve been a sector that people fall into and then stay, rather than choose. Yet we can offer people full-time jobs, not the part-time jobs pushed by the retailers,” he said.

Jackson put the aim of the groups, which are initially funded for two years, and his overriding ambition for SfL’s ongoing efforts another way. “We want logistics to be an employer of choice in a sector of choice.” Having been placed into the driving seat, success is now contingent on operators playing their part if the skills groups are to deliver on their early promise.

Occupational Craft skills Group leaders

■ Driving – Geoff Dunning, chief executive, RHA

■ Fleet management - Isobel Harding, skills policy and development manager, FTA

■ International trade – Robert Keene, executive director, British International Freight Association

■ Warehousing – Andy Lawrence, management board, UK Warehousing Association

■ Wholesaling – James Bielby, chief executive, Federation of Wholesalers

■ Terminal operations – Richard Steele, head of port skills & safety, Port Skills & Safety

■ Mail and packages – Carl Lomas, chairman, Institute of Couriers

■ Logistics operations – Ross Moloney, director of intelligence and strategy, SfL

■ Supply chain operations – Shane Walton, head of professional development, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport(UK)