IT in the Warehouse: Learning New Skills

By Victoria Wheeler

IT in the Warehouse: Learning New Skills

Nearly 100 years ago, Henry Ford startled the world with his venture into the unknown and, in the process, established a base line for what has become the standard for industrial manufacturing.  The simple Ford assembly line has now become the basis for massive productivity gains around the world.

The major difference is that in today's manufacturing facility, unlike in the facilities of Ford's era, parts to be assembled may come from across the world and are not generally housed in the manufacturing plant. In today's facility, as each product goes down the traditional assembly line, add-ons are queued up via advanced software programs that integrate the desired part in time with the position on the line. Thus, the procurement of the necessary part is a collaborative effort amongst suppliers, vendors, and the manufacturer. It requires warehousing/distribution and logistics coordination that are the heartbeat of the supply chain. Information Technology has become a necessity and advanced enterprise platforms enable a skilled workforce to make huge productivity gains via logistics.

As jobs in the manufacturing sector diminish, the need for trained and qualified personnel in the warehousing/distribution field is accelerating.  It is estimated that there will be nearly 8 million jobs created in the supply chain field within the next 10 years. this is information was garnered through the MHIA - Material Handling Equipment Manufacturers Forecast, based on data from sources such as the members of the Material Handling Industry of America, the Department of Commerce and Global Insights. According to these data, many of these new workers will be using advanced technologies.

Warehouse Workers as Pros?

The net result is that today's warehouse and distribution employees aren't filling what we've come to consider day-laborer jobs or heavy-lifting positions. They are actually taking on important technology roles. The advances in automating warehouses and distribution centers to accommodate just-in-time manufacturing have delivered great productivity. The software used is now so integral to complex warehousing processes and task management that companies are seeking job applicants with knowledge of the technology. From the CIO perspective, new hires in operations should have hands-on experience with these software platforms.

It follows that employees trained in logistic optimization and use of these systems are gaining an advantage in the job hunt, especially in regions where distribution centers are being built. Companies are recognizing that these employees will need full computer and equipment knowledge to keep abreast of the technological advancements in the field of material handling.

To address this driving need, the Material Handling Education Foundation, Inc. in conjunction with the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) are advancing training programs at the high-school, technical & community college level across the nation. The Material Handling Industry of America is the international trade association that represents the manufacturers of the equipment, goods and services of the supply chain. Through donations of their products, the TCEP (Technical Career Education Program) is establishing laboratories in high schools and technical colleges to provide hands-on work experience to future workers.  Member corporations of MHIA, such as RedPrairie, Yale Fork Truck, Hanel Storage, Unarco, and many others have donated their products -- such as rack, conveyors, fork trucks, computers and software -- to these labs.

Students learn in real production warehouses, such as the charitable First Book Program, which distributes hundreds of thousands of books to children to promote reading skills. Using warehouse management software, students learn complex concepts like task interleaving, dynamic slotting, automated business rules and supply chain analytics. Learning sophisticated concepts such as business analytics position students well for career growth, and could help employees broaden their careers when IT analytics systems are used in other areas of management.

Global Changes Create Regional Boom

The advancement of the expansion of the Panama Canal will realign receipt of goods within the United States.  The need for major distribution centers in the Southeast United States is growing. For example, Amazon.com is building a warehouse in South Carolina that will create more than 1,200 jobs.  Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are among the states that will need trained personnel.  With the collaborative efforts of MHIA, the Material Handling Education Foundation, local and national businesses, and school systems, the training laboratories established through the Technical Career Education Program will provide a platform for advancement of trained a workforce for the future.

It's not classic IT training, but with all the talk of business alignment in the past few years, this kind of operations training is where the rubber meets the road. As every CIO knows, IT has penetrated every part of the enterprise. Now, even our low-tech warehouse workers have gone high tech.

Victoria Wheeler is Executive Director of the Material Handling Education Foundation, Inc. Learn more about the Technical Career Education Program through www.mhia.org/tcep. Victoria can be reached at vwheeler@mhia.org

This article was originally published on 02-16-2011