Director general at TIACA Glyn Hughes reminds us that despite the sector’s tremendous technical and logistical complexity it is the humans that it employs who make it work
The air cargo industry transports over 65 million metric tonnes of goods every year with a combined value of over $8 trillion. This represents about a third of international trade while only reflecting about 1-2 per cent by volume.
The industry uses assets such as aircraft that cost hundreds of millions of dollars but equally as important is the $100 strap used to secure cargo when in transit.
We use the latest technological solutions to track the cargo and to ensure the conditions remain optimal throughout the journey. Technology is used to book, submit, clear customs, alert and monitor cargo movements.
Automation proliferates across cargo facilities with automatic storage and retrieval systems being implemented with increasing frequency.
Yet no matter how much technology is employed the air cargo industry will always remain a people-based industry.
From front line customer service, to compliance expertise, to exception management, to program sales and execution, it’s the people that really make the difference.
We saw this during Covid when many facilities were unable to move cargo as no drivers were able to clear away backlogs and no handling staff were available to load/off load aircraft.
We see staffing challenges almost daily which results in supply chain blockages. Labor agreements are often fraught with delicate balances between the needs of the workers and the needs of the company.
But with changes to the working environment and changes to workforce expectations from employment how must we change as an industry?
Let us start with the recruitment process. We must create the right environment to attract applications from all sectors of society.
From a gender perspective, a Gartner study in 2022 showed that women accounted for only 39 per cent of all supply chain employees. For an industry that serves the entire global community, we need to do a better job of reflecting that community in our front line, technical, operational, commercial and executive positions.
We need to look at training, not just from a competency ‘required skill sets’ perspective but also from a ‘developing our people’ perspective. We need to use development opportunities to build loyalty and establish longer career paths.
This is becoming increasingly more important as the next generation workforce look for personal development much more than previous generations.
As the jobs market gets increasingly more competitive, the recruitment process is more about a two-way interview than previously, so we must focus on what image we project as organisations.
What environment do we want to create? How do we truly value our employees? What are our sustainability credentials? What is our approach to supporting the local and global community? What are our values and ethics? Why should someone join us? What is our journey and how can they see the role they play in adding value?
We are seeing some organisations building longer term loyalty with sabbatical leave programmes, overseas placements, even if just temporary, with executive training support on top of the usual benefits package. Work/life balance considerations are also a much more important factor in the post-Covid era.
Mentorship and coaching programmes are also critical. As employers, how can we help our workforce to grow so they build internal careers rather than having to leave to find that next opportunity?
Some organisations still favour external recruitment to internal succession plans, whereas research suggests that companies which actively promote from within have higher productivity at all levels as employees value the opportunities on offer.
Recruitment and re-recruitment are an expensive process, getting up to speed is a time consuming and costly process, and staff vacancies often place successful strategic execution at risk and place undue pressures on the existing workforce.
Workplace environments can be stressful and as many of us spend more time at work than at home we need to consider those additional pressures.
Work/life balance is often talked about but difficult to achieve as often pressures at work overtake our desire for more family time with husbands, wives, partners, and children.
Mental health issues are another factor which impacts workforce success. The UK Health and Safety Executive, a division of the UK government, issued a study that showed in 2021/22, an estimated 1.8 million workers in Great Britain were suffering from an illness which they believed was caused or made worse by work (either new or longstanding), equivalent to a rate of 5,390 per 100,000 workers (5.4 per cent).
Furthermore, it found that stress, depression or anxiety and musculo-skeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health in 2021 and 2022, 17.0 million and 7.3 million respectively. On average, each person suffering took around 16.5 days off work.
Air cargo is a stressful industry, so how can we identify issues and help avoid them? Sometimes it is just as easy as asking “Are you ok?” We don’t need to be trained professionals to help and support our colleagues and team members.
We all want to live, healthy, productive, and successful lives and in an industry which does so much good for the global community we should be the industry of choice for the next gen workforce, for the return to workers workforce and for the ‘I want a change’ workforce.
After all, air cargo people are the ones who make it all happen.
This feature was first published in Airline Cargo Management – May 2023. To read the magazine in full, click here.