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UKWA CEO Clare Bottle - Growing our own warehouse talent

According to Microsoft’s latest research, more than 40% of the global workforce are thinking of changing their job this year. 

That’s double the usual number and represents a new disruption for UK employers, that will follow fast on the heels of Brexit and the pandemic. And even the New York Times is reporting that these twin crises have decimated the warehouse workforce already. We are facing some intertwined labour problems:

  • not enough people want to work in warehousing, or even understand the opportunities;
  • the risk of people leaving is higher than ever before;
  • we need to capitalise on changes – such as the end of furlough – which could induce people from outside our sector to consider careers in warehousing; and
  • the skills we require are changing, so even the dedicated people already here deserve investment to help them stay up to date.

It is impossible to step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher to whom we attribute the idea that change is the only constant. But his philosophy wasn’t fearful of the running water: instead, it hinged on the idea that without change, we die.

In warehousing, we have coped with the stockpiling that heralded the UK’s departure from the EU, with the peaks and troughs of panic buying and lockdowns. Furthermore, we have underpinned the roll-out of a world class vaccination supply chain, earning ‘key-worker’ status and unprecedented recognition from the public as well as policymakers. So surely, we have the wherewithal and resilience to weather a workforce storm.
Nurturing an inclusive culture

The solutions may be diverse, but two key elements are the imagination to explore a bigger talent pool and the determination to provide high quality training.
McKinsey’s 2020 report Diversity Wins, confirms the business case for inclusion and diversity is stronger than ever, driving performance and profitability. They go on to reiterate something we firmly believed in at my previous employer, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners: that an inclusive culture is a pre-requisite to make any diversity policy work. It can be tempting to focus on diversity first, starting with plans to recruit candidates from a variety of ethnic and cultural heritages, across a wide age range; maybe introducing more women into a hitherto male-dominated workforce, or taking people on from a different industry. My advice on this is to stop it!

Logisticians often have a bias for action, so we’re easily seduced by the kind of measures I’ve outlined. They are ill-judged as a first step. It is harder, but more effective, to talk to the current staff and explore what cultural norms might be causing harm or holding people back. By engaging with our teams, we can find out what changes are needed to develop an inclusive culture. Existing employees are more likely welcome the work on diversity when they see it in the context of a programme that benefits them too; and new recruits won’t stay long unless retention is a priority.

There are only around 1,600 female forklift truck drivers in the UK. That’s less than 4 per cent. The Women’s Budget Group reports that more women than men were forced into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Since furlough is now coming to an end, it’s quite likely that more women will be looking for work so, with the right encouragement – and subject to the pre-emptive work on inclusion explained above – this could be a good opportunity to welcome them into our sector.

Like hairdressing, driving a forklift truck is an underrated skill that’s not quite as easy as it looks. Some of the self-inflicted lockdown crops seen on Zoom are evidence of that! Far more little girls aspire to jobs in the beauty industry than operating mechanical handling equipment, but in my view, anyone with the manual dexterity and aptitude to learn hairdressing could pass an RTITB test too. And according to the government’s own website, starting salaries are more than 20% higher for those who smash the stereotype. When Manal al-Sharif started the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia back in 2011, she was sent to prison after posting a YouTube video of herself driving a car, but public opinion around the world saw the ban as ridiculously outdated. Ten years later, in effect, women remain largely excluded from FLT driving. Surely it’s time to challenge this too.

Workplace prejudice doesn’t only exclude women. Fewer than 6% of people with a learning difficulty are in paid employment. XPO Logistics is one company, working alongside DS WorkFit, the employment program delivered by the Down’s Syndrome Association, that has recognised the opportunity to increase inclusivity and recruit from a pool of people able to work hard and deliver results within a warehouse environment.

Another example of warehousing and logistics companies thinking outside the box is Clipper Logistics, who have engaged with an award-winning charity that helps serving and ex-offenders find employment. Upon release, 64% of prisoners are back in prison within 2 years – but for those who find work through Tempus Novo, it’s less than 2%. What’s more, Clipper confirms that by offering training and employment opportunities to ex-offenders, not only are they meeting their own Corporate Social Responsibility goals, but they are gaining access to talented people with useful skills who are highly motivated to prove themselves to be good employees.

We need to attract more young people too. There is no GCSE or A level in logistics or supply chain, let alone warehousing; and although there are degree courses available in logistics, just 17 UK institutions offer such qualifications, whilst there are 103 universities to choose from to study medicine and 119 for law. This makes it too easy for schools to ignore us and children to remain oblivious to the many well-paid and interesting career opportunities on offer.

Besides inclusivity, training is essential

So, in warehousing, first we need to build an inclusive culture where our current employees feel well-equipped to do their work competently and supported to make progress in their careers.  Secondly, we need to create opportunities for people from atypical backgrounds to thrive in our sector. The common tool that helps to deliver both of these objectives is training.

The benefits of learning and development are well documented. Not only does training provide the necessary technical skills to do the job, but it improves productivity and performance. Employees who have access to training and professional development increase in confidence, take ownership of their responsibilities and make more loyal workers. Often, they are less likely to leave. But remember the legendary story of two managers discussing staff training. One objects to training, asking “what if we train them and they leave?” The second manager counters, “what if we don’t train them and they stay…?”

There is a strong, pent-up demand for training following the months of social distancing and home working during lockdown. Workers are ready to re-engage in their own development, and we need to capitalise on the newly recognised status of logistics with world class training provision.  Ultimately, it is down to the sector to provide this, so training is an issue at the top of our agenda at UKWA – we can and will do more to nurture the hardworking workforces we’ve already got and attract external talent too.

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