The Missing Pieces

By Ruari McCallion

April 2023

Technician skills shortages in the logistics sector

The skills shortage has arrived with a post-Covid bang.

Bad luck, ‘black swans’ or bad planning? Ruari McCallion assesses the situation. (8 min. read).

The logistics industry across the board, including materials handling, warehouse management and transport, has been hit by a shortage of technicians and technical support grades, for field and maintenance positions. This is the case across the world – or as much of it as provides reliable statistics, at least. According to a report in February 2022 in Supply Management, published by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), the logistics sector is expected to have worker shortages of 400,000 by 2026.

This is a quite staggering number, and it is easy to ascribe it to Brexit, Covid or any other convenient, passing ‘black swan’ – the event that proves that the supposedly impossible is not only very much possible but is highly disruptive. The world has had a flock of such events over the past 20 years, from the Fukushima earthquake through banking and credit crunches, Brexit, Covid and now a destructive war in Europe – a continent that was supposed to have consigned such things to the dustbin of history.

A gathering storm

This situation, which is growing to the scale of a real crisis, has not appeared from nowhere. The UK recorded a major skills shortage in logistics and materials handling a decade and a half ago, in 2008. In September 2020, as the second wave of Covid-19 infections was building, Industry Today reported a Manpower survey that found 69% of employers were struggling to fill positions in the USA. The world’s population has been rising, with some exceptions in leading economies, and advances in automation and mechanical efficiencies have enabled significant rises in productivity. The modern warehouse is a cleaner, safer place than ever before and both forklifts and heavy trucks are, in theory, more satisfying and easier to drive than the beasts of the past.

The demographic timebomb

There is a demographic gap, as well. Older workers leaving employment are not being replaced, either by the immediately following generation or by recent graduates from schools or further education (FE – non-university post-school education). It is looking rather less like a short-term problem, driven by recent events, and very much more like a fundamental, structural issue. Youngsters are supposed to be tech-savvy, having grown up with computers, Xboxes, tablets and the internet. The more automated and IT-controlled warehouse, materials handling and logistics industry of today should be a natural choice, so why is it struggling to attract skilled recruits?

In 2017, a Statista survey found the main reasons for recruitment failure were: the image of the industries; low pay and unattractive working conditions; poor training; and restricted career opportunities.

Changing lifestyles and technologies

During the years of the Covid emergency, lockdowns, layoffs and furloughing of workers became commonplace across the UK and Europe. We are still living with the economic consequences; supply interruptions, especially of microchips for the auto industry, have had a major impact. Given time to think about their lifestyles, a lot of people have decided to change.

Clare Bottle, CEO UK WHA

“Without wishing to be disparaging, some older people have found the increased demands of digital literacy and the technical challenges associated with today’s maintenance roles are not as appealing as the job they signed up for. It’s less of a mechanical operation and a lot more in the way of software diagnostics,” says Clare Bottle, CEO of the UK Warehouse Association (UKWA).

Pay, conditions and expectations

More iPads and spreadsheets than spanners and hammers, in short. There is, it should be acknowledged, less need for on-site technicians in larger operations. Forklift trucks are more reliable than ever, and a lot of their operations are ‘black box’ – sealed components that are either fixed electronically or removed and replaced as a unit. Dealers offering 360-degree leases will employ the technicians themselves, removing the need for logistics operators to do so.

It is a different world, no doubt, but it’s not just about technology. Skillsets are different and so are the expectations of the workforce, both current and potential. The UKWA reported in late 2021 that warehouses in Great Britain were having to offer pay of up to 30% more than then-current scales, in order to recruit workers. Transport trade associations across Europe and North America reported similar issues.

“Improving pay is just one part of successful staff recruitment and retention. Important factors for anyone considering a new role, or their future career, include job satisfaction and safety. This working experience has to improve – and that can only be achieved by using automated solutions to speed up the loading and unloading process.”

Wouter Satijn, Sales Director of Joloda Hydraroll, the global loading and unloading processes specialist.

Automation to bridge the gap

Zebra Technologies Corporation, the technology and automation company, has found that retail and warehouse businesses are, indeed, investing in technology – and that it seems to go down well, in practice. A survey found more than half of shopfloor respondents saying that technology made their jobs easier. Andrew Snowden, founder and Director of systems company Acquire Control Ltd, is an enthusiast for automation – as could be expected – and sees it as providing two principal benefits: the traditional automation of work that is dirty, dangerous and repetitive, thus helping to boost profitability; and, in the context of labour shortages, reducing the need to rely on human beings for routine tasks, especially. Leave the machines to do the repetitive stuff and let the people get involved with higher-level activity.

“We are definitely in a transition situation. We have had several customers requiring automation solutions simply to replace staff,” he says. While mentioning initiatives like the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, England, which is raising advanced skills levels, he also said that, at a less exalted level, the connection with schools and FE colleges needs to be strengthened.

Investment in training

Industry and government in the Republic of Ireland have invested in two sites, in particular, that are undertaking initial training of school leavers and providing reskilling courses. One, at Maynooth, specialises in automation for manufacturing. The other, at Manorhamilton, County Leitrim, works with companies involved in the construction and quarrying sectors, and their supply chains. It encourages the adoption of advanced technologies and processes, including automation, robotics, modular construction and factory building, additive manufacturing and Industry 4.0 technologies, to improve processes – including logistics operations. The Manorhamilton facility has a particular focus on capturing the knowledge and expertise of people aged 40-plus, who have traditionally left the physically demanding industries. It retrains them as mentors and trainers themselves or re-equips them for less demanding tasks within the factory.

AR and VR (augmented reality and virtual reality) can help, both with training and with optimising deployment of skills. Lessons can be taught using VR, while online AR can reduce the need for technicians to make onsite visits; they can guide local staff, perhaps less skilled, to remedy problems.

The logistics industry in the UK has attracted some government support for an initiative called Generation Logistics, a 12-month (initially) campaign of events, activities and promotions designed to raise awareness and the attractiveness of logistics as a career. It is particularly targeted at 16-24-year-olds, career switchers and work returners.

Consequences and solutions

Too many industries – foolishly, in hindsight – cut costs by cutting training and apprenticeships, hoping to rely on others to carry the burden and then poach qualified personnel. It was by no means a universal practice; Germany maintained its much-admired Meister training and education infrastructure. But where it happened, it created problems that are now being thrown into stark relief.

The logistics and materials handling industry cannot afford to wait for ‘things to settle down’ and the return of business as usual. It has to invest in automation to cover the gaps that machinery and technology is able to bridge. Where it cannot, the solution is clearly to commit to training. But attracting youngsters remains a problem, when pitched against other sectors that present themselves as more pleasant working environments and even more glamorous. There is a lot of work to be done on improving the image of logistics and materials handling, if it is to compete effectively in the labour market pool, both experienced and new.

The current situation arose by a combination of accident, demographics and neglect – or at least complacency. The solution is in the industry’s own hands.

What makes a logistics technician?

Skills and knowledge

  • the ability to use, repair and maintain machines and tools
  • problem-solving skills
  • attention to detail
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) knowledge
  • practical skills for repairing and maintaining equipment
  • initiative
  • persistence and determination
  • manual agility
  • tech-savviness to carry out tasks via computer, hand-held devices, AR and VR

Day-to-day tasks

  • visit clients on-site with a mobile workshop
  • identify problems using tools, a laptop or hand-held device
  • diagnose electrical, mechanical and hydraulic faults
  • repair or replace faulty parts
  • service engines
  • test-drive trucks and make adjustments
  • carry out safety checks

Working area:

In a workshop or on worksites.

Advanced skills may include overseeing others directly and directing servicing and repairs via AR/VR technology.

Amy Coltman, Systems Design Engineer, Dematic.

Amy Coltman, Systems Design Engineer, Dematic


Amy Coltman has been employed by Dematic, the intralogistics, supply chain automation and warehouse management solutions company, for three and a half years. Her current title is Intralogistics Improvement Consultant.

Her career began at age 18 when she won a place on a four-year apprenticeship scheme for maintenance engineers. On completion, she applied for and was transferred to a role that would bring her more exposure to advanced warehouse automation. She progressed from there to the position of Systems Design Engineer.

Amy is quite keen to build a career all the way to the boardroom, if she can, and to set an example to other apprentices, especially young women.

“It is important for women to venture into engineering because the industry needs them,” she says. She was the only female throughout her apprenticeship course and was initially the only female maintenance engineer with her first employer.

“Engineering isn’t always about ‘getting your hands dirty’, it’s using your mind, thinking outside the box, improvising and working within a team that eventually become your family, working on robots and learning the technology that supplies online orders to us all as customers,” Amy declares. “At the end of a working day, you leave the workplace with a feeling of reward and accomplishment for keeping ‘the wheels of that warehouse turning’, making sure each and every customer receives their orders on time and in good condition, which is really satisfying.”