Covid-19 has led to exponential growth for logistics companies. However, while digital transformation has been accelerated in the industry, demand for manpower has also increased, exacerbating pre-existing manpower shortages. How can companies in ‘unsexy’ sectors raise their talent attraction and retention game? At PeopleSearch’s recent event, ‘Winning the Post-Pandemic Talent War’, Country Director (Singapore), Logwin Air+Ocean, Jimmy Ler discussed how he’s trying to solve the problem.
Most people would agree that working in the logistics industry isn’t a typical childhood ambition. The industry has a reputation of being dull and unglamorous.
A career in logistics certainly wasn’t Jimmy Ler’s ambition. In fact, it seemed like a last resort at the time.
He lost his parents at a young age and his adoptive mother did not have the resources to put him through school, but with some assistance from the state, he was able to complete his ‘O’ levels.
During his time in the army, he asked a senior officer for advice.
“I told him that my education is so-so and I don’t have any skills. I asked him what industry I should go into. At the time, no one knew a lot about logistics or what we called ‘freight forwarding’. It was and still is, in many ways, a very ‘unsexy’ industry.”
In spite of this, he went for a job interview at a German logistics company with a presence in Singapore.
“I reported to the airport cargo complex on my first day of work, wearing a shirt and pants. The manager saw me and shouted, “Do you think you’re here for a wedding dinner?” When I told him I was hired to be part of the cargo team, he checked and told me I’m meant to be a forklift driver.”
Jimmy promptly went home to change.
“I returned in a pair of jeans and t-shirt. That’s how I started my career in logistics more than 30 years ago.”
Since then, he has risen through the ranks to become Logwin Air+Ocean’s Country Director in Singapore.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
While Covid-19 led to severe and sudden supply chain disruptions in its initial months, the crisis soon fuelled opportunities for the logistics industry and its subservice lines, namely cross-border e-commerce logistics.
According to a McKinsey report, online penetration is now likely to remain six to 13 percentage points above pre-Covid levels. While this puts greater pressure on global logistics, it also presents a huge opportunity as consumer goods and retail make up almost half of the logistics market.
McKinsey also says that Asia is projected to recover faster than other regions economically and will be at the centre of all logistics activity—both in growth and investment. Trade growth between Asia and the rest of the world is expected to contribute about 55 percent, with intra-Asia trade growth making up the rest.
The logistics industry will thus continue to need manpower, be it in operations, digital or corporate functions.
Jimmy believes he made the right move in choosing to build a meaningful career in the industry.
“I see it as a very interesting and important industry. Everyone says Singapore is very small, but look at our location. All the international vessels have to pass through Singapore. I started from the basics and learnt so many things over the years. I learnt how to do customs clearance. I learnt how to clear animals like horses. I even learnt how to clear human remains coming in by coffin. Over the years, I also learnt how to do permits and other paperwork. When I started, we were using typewriters. It used to take three days to clear import permits. Today, everything is digitised and online. It takes only five minutes.”
“Digitalisation has helped the industry today, but people still doubt that dealing with warehousing, transport and permits can be interesting. It can be because the job also requires using your expertise to solve problems to ensure goods reach their destinations as quickly as possible,” adds Jimmy.
AN APPRECIATION OF PEOPLE
Aside from an appreciation of the work, a deep appreciation of the various people with whom he has worked over the years has kept him rooted in the industry. Today, as a leader within the company, he makes a concerted effort to build cohesive teams and believes a healthy corporate culture is one of the company’s selling points when it comes to talent attraction.
“I started from the bottom and have been through every single level, so I have very open dialogue with all the staff. I can relate to their challenges. When they have issues, I make sure I’m there for them. The fact that I have hands-on logistics experience also helps. People tend to respect those who do. When employees like their leadership and corporate culture, they are also more likely to recommend the company to their friends and family as an employer of choice.”
On his part, ensuring that the company demonstrates due respect for in-house talent is especially vital. Talent development, he feels, is just as, if not more important than talent acquisition.
“Don’t only pump money into attracting new people. I believe in recognising and developing in-house talent. They know your company and if they have shown potential, don’t hesitate to pump resources into charting an even more robust skills development and career path for them. This will make them want to stay longer,” says Jimmy.
A sizeable proportion of his staff have stayed with the company for more than two decades.
“So what if some of the others leave after a few years only? Some people say that would mean all the time and money that went into training them would be classified as a waste. Well, think about it this way instead. They would have contributed to your company substantially already. Also, remember that having untrained and unmotivated people will end up costing you more than training your people. If you treat your talent well, they are also more likely to return,” he adds.
It is also vital for managers to be able to identify individuals’ strengths and find them the right job fit within the organisation.
“We had an employee whom no department wanted, but I noticed that he was very articulate and persuasive so I channelled him to the sales department and he did very well there.”
ATTRACTING NEW BLOOD
In order to increase awareness of what working in logistics entails, he ensures a substantial number of internships every year. An intern could start off in ground-level jobs like packing or warehouse operations and if he or she is committed and qualified, could move into corporate functions such as finance.
“I believe starting at ground level strengthens their foundation and makes them more resilient. They are less likely to be afraid of storms if they know how all aspects of the business work,” says Jimmy.
He also believes in starting them young. Outreach efforts directed at local tertiary institutions have managed to attract a healthy pool of interns, many of whom stay in the industry.
“I also always encourage my staff whose children are on school holidays to come to the office and do data entry and archiving work. Let them understand what working life is about rather than allowing them to wake up late and play with their smartphones all day.”
To attract a younger generation, Jimmy’s team focusses on how a career in logistics can be purposeful and fulfilling.
“E-commerce is great but the things people buy don’t magically fly in. Our industry enables it. Our industry enables people to get the things they need. It empowers businesses and people. Because it helps businesses grow, it also fuels job growth beyond just our industry.”
Employment packages these days are sweetened with benefits such as performance bonuses and remote work. For example, the sales team works largely from home and has become more productive as a result. Hybrid work arrangements look set to be the norm for the Singapore office and Logwin also believes in ensuring that the work environment is conducive to productivity.
“We got designers to bring in all the office furniture and had our staff try it out before deciding what to buy. We want to make sure they are comfortable.”
The company has also gone the extra mile to ensure that people of all races and religions are respected. For instance, the Singapore office has a separate halal pantry and a prayer room for Muslim employees. Such Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives certainly contribute to talent attraction as well.
Jimmy also believes in hiring unconventional talent. Since 2008, he has collaborated with the Yellow Ribbon Project to hire ex-offenders in various roles such as logistics managers.
“Ultimately, leadership needs to be progressive and have foresight,” says Jimmy.
“Leaders need to be collaborative in coming up with ideas to attract and retain talent, and learn how to rally and manage teams to create a great corporate culture. This will enable the organisation to attract the best, no matter the industry.”