The new role for supply chain technicians

Today’s highly automated systems demand technicians with new skills and new training. The industry is beginning to respond.

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Perhaps you’ve seen the Safelite commercials while channel surfing. Sure, the auto glass repair company touts its technical abilities and competitive prices. But the stars of the commercials are amiable certified technicians who promise to come to your home, place of business or even a vacation spot to get you back on the road. They’ll even send you an e-mail with the name, photo and credentials of the technician who is going to give you a hand. Forget the stereotypical grease monkey of days past; neatly groomed and dressed in crisp red golf shirts and black slacks, Safelite’s technicians look more like customer service reps than mechanics. And, maybe that’s the point. In today’s world, technicians and mechanics are the face of the company to the customer and not just some Mr. Fix It.

Something similar is happening in the world of automated materials handling systems and lift trucks. Today’s systems are more complex than ever; meanwhile, a lift truck is outfitted with software and sensors as sophisticated as a commercial airliner and is expected to remain in service almost as long. It is no longer sufficient that a technician be good with a screwdriver and a wrench. For today’s supply chain technician, technology and mechatronics is part of the skill set.

“Technicians have to understand software and PLC logic and not just mechanics,” says Roger Olle, director of technical services for Daifuku North America. Increasingly, they also have some level of post-high school education. “As recently as three years ago, about 30% of our technicians had a technical school or university degree,” Olle adds. “Today it’s about 70% and we train them extensively on our systems before we send them out to a client site.”

For that reason, a new term is emerging to describe someone with the combination of special skills to keep complex materials handling systems and equipment operational: supply chain technician.

The new skill set goes beyond familiarity with technology. Like the Safelite technician, supply chain technicians are central cogs in the customer service ecosystem. “We have a saying that we win a customer through the sales function, but keeping them is the result of our ability to service the fleet,” says Pat DeSutter, vice president of fleet service and aftermarket for Yale Material Handling Corp. “A technician who consistently presents themselves in a professional manner builds a level of trust that you can’t replicate just with an account manager calling on the customer.”

The same is true when it comes to automated materials handling systems, where technicians need to be “a combination of Mr. Goodwrench and Henry Kissinger,” says Mike Kotecki, senior vice president of customer service for Dematic. “They have to have communication skills on the fly, be able to follow up with written communications and have the diplomatic skills to develop an open, honest and candid relationship with the customer.”

As a result of these changes, systems providers, start-ups and lift truck manufacturers are putting more emphasis on recruiting, training and retaining supply chain technicians. They are also spawning industry efforts to develop a national certification for supply chain technician. The goals are to define the skill set required, create awareness of the job, and to attract people to the industry at a time when there is a shortage of skilled, trained technicians.

Beyond the tool belt
Just how important are supply chain technicians to a systems integration and distribution company? At Associated Supply Chain Solutions, one of the largest lift truck dealers in the country and the parent company of supply chain consulting firm Peach State Integrated Technologies, technicians represent about half the employee base and a significant amount of company revenue, says CEO Mike Romano. “I think the shortage of technicians is one of the critical issues our business and the industry faces going forward,” Romano says.

Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 120,000 new technicians by 2020. Meanwhile, a study conducted in May 2013 by the National Center for Supply Chain Technology Education estimated that there are some 204,000 supply chain technicians in the field now, and projects an additional 61,000 new jobs within the next 24 months. Better yet, these are high-paying jobs.

Several drivers are behind this growth, according to Colleen Molko, the center’s executive director. One is the tremendous increase in e-commerce—companies continue to automate to manage the cost of labor-intensive each picking; the re-shoring phenomenon, which is seeing manufacturers build highly automated plants to mitigate higher U.S. labor costs; and the ability to use automation to address ergonomic and safety issues. And it’s not just retailers and their suppliers that are automating; so are automotive, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, consumer packaged goods, aerospace and durable goods manufacturers.

The shortage is exacerbated as the experienced technicians currently in the field retire while the industry is invisible to millennials, who represent the potential pool of talent for the next generation of technician. “One of the things we struggle with is making individuals who are in technical schools aware of the opportunities in our industry,” says Pat Huebel, the national training and customer center operations manager for Toyota Material Handling USA.

The same is true for materials handling equipment and systems providers. “The biggest challenge is obtaining, training and retaining them,” says Jeff Hedges, president of OPEX Material Handling.

Finally, there simply aren’t the same number of technical programs as in the past because young people have shunned industrial education. “A lot of community colleges shut down their technical programs over the last 10 years,” says Kieran Ryan, director of field service for Intelligrated. “There’s really a void that we’re all trying to fill right now.”

Recruit, train and retain
As the competition for talent grows, the industry’s focus is on recruiting, training and then retaining supply chain technicians. Meanwhile, MHI, the industry association, is partnering with the National Science Foundation Center for Supply Chain Technology Education, to develop a certification for this emerging field.

For example, Hedges has been able to leverage his parent company’s 40-year history of providing technical service to its customers in the mail processing industry, which uses the same mobile robotic technology that is central to OPEX’s automated storage and goods-to-person solution.

“We’re able to springboard off the team we already have in place across the country that is trained in maintaining our iBot technology,” Hedges says. “However, as we install more systems, we have to continue to build on that base.”

Meanwhile, the competition for available technicians is growing.

“In some respects, our industry is competing with our customers for talent,” says Intelligrated’s Ryan. “We’ve had instances where a large retailer has offered our technicians $5 an hour more than they’re currently making because they can’t find people, and in some rare instances, they’re getting paid more than engineers.” 

Ryan adds that Intelligrated is partnering with Columbus State Community College in Ohio to develop talent. “Many of the people we’re bringing in are in their 40s and 50s and are starting a second career,” Ryan says. “They have some technical skills, but more importantly, they’re used to dealing with stress and communicating with customers in a professional setting.”
A number of best practices are emerging.

Recruitment: One of the challenges the industry faces is getting in front of potential technicians, given that materials handling hasn’t always been on the radar. “In our industry, there is a shortage of top talent,” says Dematic’s Kotecki. That may call for looking outside of the traditional universe, such as competitors. “The military and community colleges are great breeding grounds for this,” he adds.

Dematic is not alone in that assessment. Romano says that Associated has developed relationships with technical schools that serve as feeders for its organizations. “We will hire a seasoned technician where appropriate, but we try to develop and train our technicians from scratch when possible,” he says.

At the same time, the National Center for Supply Chain Technology Education has become a resource for community colleges and technical schools in areas where there is a large warehousing, distribution and manufacturing presence looking to launch programs.

In the lift truck industry, Toyota is finalizing a technician recruiting video that service managers can take to technical schools and military recruiting events in their areas to bring awareness of the industry. Meanwhile, companies like Crown have developed relationships with technical schools with automotive training programs, like the University of Northwest Ohio, where the company sponsors a class in lift truck maintenance. 

Training: The most interesting development, and possibly the most significant from the technician of the past, is the emphasis on a technician’s people skills.

Intelligrated, for instance, assumes that a new hire has some technical ability. For that reason, new hires begin their training in customer service.

“I’ve told new hires that if they can’t present themselves well and communicate with the customer, they can’t get into the door,” says Ryan. Similarly, Crown puts its technicians through its customer care training program to learn how to interact with customers, the parts department, the sales department and the rental department before they are given the keys to a customer service van.

At the same time, in an industry that is booming, many technicians are getting their training through a combination of classroom and on-site, hands-on experience. “We have a number of projects going on around the country,” says Hedges.

Retaining: Given the competition for talent, the biggest challenge the industry may face today is companies keeping technicians once they have been recruited and trained.

“By definition, technicians are a pioneering and nomadic breed,” says Kotecki, meaning that it’s not uncommon for them to move on to greener pastures, especially in a job that can be repetitive. Kotecki says that Dematic strives to stay on top of the changes in its technicians’ lives and to offer opportunities to move within the company when appropriate. “Some of our top engineers used to carry a tool box,” he says.

The concept of a career path is also key at other organizations. At Associated, for instance, Romano says his organization makes a commitment to offering technicians 40 to 80 hours of training a year to advance their skills; pay for performance; and opportunities to advance to supervisory and management roles, such as a team leader and a field service leader. “You can advance from an apprentice to a fork lift technician to an automated system technician into management,” he says.

Systems integrators and lift truck providers say that at the end of the day, the emphasis on technicians is driven by new customer expectations, as well as the expectations of their customers. “In the past, a technician was a guy who kept something running in a warehouse,” says Kotecki. “Now, the actions of a technician impact the ability of a guy sitting on his couch and ordering something over the Internet to get his order the next day.”

Companies mentioned in this article
Associated Supply Chain Solutions, associated-solutions.com
Crown, crown.com
Daifuku North America, daifukuNA.com
Dematic, dematic.us
Intelligrated, intelligrated.com
Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, msscusa.org
MHI, mhi.org
National Center for Supply Chain Technology Education, supplychainteched.org
OPEX Material Handling, opex.com
Swisslog, swisslog.com
Toyota Material Handling USA, toyotaforklift.com
Yale Material Handling Corp., yale.com


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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