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Post: Outside the Box: Who will power the supply chain of the future?

​Sammy, the tire store manager, runs back into the showroom after checking my vehicle’s tires. 

Catching his breath and wiping away a bead of sweat, “Wow! You ran those to threads!” I feel a wave of shame as I imagine the line of other early morning customers standing behind me shaking their heads. 

Staring grimly at his computer kiosk Sammy mutters, “I’m not sure I have those in stock. Getting inventory these days is never (expletive) easy.” 

Looking up from the computer looking at me, he says with disgust, “You know…supply chain.” 

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By now, we all know. Until recently no one knew what a supply chain was. It was simply the magic that happened behind the scenes to put products on the shelf or tires on my car. The phrase supply chain is now synonymous in the consumer’s mind with a roulette wheel — sometimes you win, the products you want are there, sometimes you lose, products are out of stock, and you are out of luck.

“Got ‘em!​” Sammy exclaims, triggering me to say with relief, “Great!” 

He puts his hand up and warns me sharply, “Wait, don’t get excited. I am not sure I have anybody to mount them today. I’m short on technicians.” 

Sensing my luck running out and my tire threads getting thinner, I gaze over his shoulder through the glass and confirm eight empty, virtually pristine, repair bays with only two lone technicians under vehicles up on hoists.

And, there it is. The other supply chain problem — the talent supply chain of skilled labor. While many industries are confronting a labor crunch, transportation’s talent supply chain is facing a triple threat of labor shortages that begin with recruitment and retention challenges, compounded by an imminent retirement wave, and coupled with a coming technology transition. 

Transportation is perhaps the best indicator of the economy. When roads are congested and trains and planes are full, people may complain, but those busy roads, rails, and packed planes mean the economy is humming — goods are moving, people are going to work, shopping, enjoying an evening out, traveling. And, because transportation is vital to nearly every activity of daily life, any disruption is felt by everyone. 

Labor shortages in the airline industry from pilots to baggage handlers has made air travel a blackjack game of hit or miss. London’s Heathrow Airport has gone as far as to ask airlines to stop selling tickets this summer to reduce passenger demand on understaffed facilities. 

The shortage of longshoremen and drivers has made the endless line of waiting ships off the coast of Long Beach, California iconic. And, just as $1 trillion of federal spending to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure is set, there is a shortage of construction workers to repair crumbling roads, ports, and rails. According to an analysis by the Associated Builders and Contractors, there were 396,000 open construction jobs in March 2022 — a full 60,000 more than the year before.

While anemic in recent years, the nation’s population continues to grow. Certain jobs just appear not to be attractive. The tires I wanted were in, but the workers to mount them were not. 

Frustrated, the tire shop manager groused that he is unable to find workers. “I have worked with the regional vocational school for years and have not been able to recruit a single employee​ — and we pay well!”  

The recruitment problem is made even more complicated by retention realities. According to the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation, 42% of automotive technology graduates (including high school and postsecondary), leave the profession within two years of entering the profession.

The shortfall in talent across the transportation enterprise is also being exacerbated by a coming retirement wave. While pilot shortages have captured television news and triggered Congress to contemplate raising the retirement age for commercial pilots, other sectors of the transportation industry are ​also ​graying. 

The average age of many other parts of the transportation workforce are nearly a decade older than the nation’s average worker age of 41 years old. Approximately one in four transportation workers are ​older than ​55. Perennially in short supply, the average truck driver is 50 years old, but nearly one in three are over age 55. 

My MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics colleague and ​c​o-​d​irector of the FreightLab, David Correll, has aptly noted that “the transportation workforce problem is multimodal, and not limited to only the jobs appearing in the current news cycle—for example studying the shortage of truck drivers has revealed that there are similar shortages of people to load and unload trucks too.” 

Those moving people are even older, transit operators average 53 years old. And, unlike those of us who drive a desk for a living, many transportation jobs require real work, physical work, making retirement less of a choice than a physical reality. 

Many people view technology as the answer to transportation’s talent supply chain problem. Business strategists and policy makers dismiss demographic realities with dreams that drivers will be replaced by driverless vehicles. Heavy construction operators will be replaced by autonomous systems. Ports will require fewer people to unload and load waiting robotic ships. Perhaps, but only in science fiction do such transitions occur overnight. 

Even as some of these technologies are being developed and deployed, there is a shortage of talent to maintain today’s advanced systems. For example, far from the vision of driverless vehicles that many people have in their imaginations, newer automobiles already include advanced safety systems that require specially trained technicians. The property and casualty insurance industry’s 2022 CCC Crash Report estimates that the demands of today’s new technology, combined with the coming wave of retirements, will generate 100,000 openings for automobile technicians. 

The coming electrification of the transportation system will ultimately require a new workforce. This will demand transitioning today’s combustion engine talent to electric as well as training a new generation of workers to maintain vehicles and robotic systems. Moreover, to successfully integrate the nation’s power infrastructure with the transportation system will need a specialized workforce to build, operate, and maintain an electricity generation and distribution system will also be required to meet unprecedented power demands. 

The current labor outlook to meet that challenge is dim. In a 2018 policy statement, the IEEE reports that 50% of the energy workforce may retire over the next five to ​10 years. ​ The average electrical and electronic technician is already 49 years old​, ​according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ​suggesting a less than robust number of younger people available to fill the coming demands of building and operating a reliable national integrated electric transportation system​.

The national transportation system is often thought of as hard infrastructure and vehicles. Not incorrect, but ever so incomplete. The nation’s transportation system includes the millions of workers that build, operate, and maintain that infrastructure and those vehicles. The United States Department of Transportation estimates that nearly 10% of the nation’s workforce is in the transportation sector.

Unlike many other industries, however, transportation ​is ​uniquely a public and private enterprise that touches everyone and everything. Its future requires public-private investment today to recruit, retain, and reward a robust talent supply chain with the agility to meet the nation’s growing demands while transitioning to tomorrow’s technologies.

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