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Rail News Home Rail Industry Trends

September 2016

Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

Guest Comment: People development, a talent crisis and an opportunity by Nick Little


Show me an organization and I’ll show you its most important asset: people.

Throughout my career, which started with a summer vacation job on the railway, I’ve observed that the way people work together is key to success for both the organization and its people. Whether working internally to ensure the job gets done properly and safely, or externally to make sure all firms involved in business transactions achieve their goals, people make things happen, especially in the supply chain.

Until matter transfer technology (“Beam me up, Scotty”) is perfected, physical movement of goods and materials will be required.

We are becoming more dependent upon data, machines, systems, etc., in our daily lives — at home and at work. Yet when CEOs list the things that keep them awake at night, talent almost always features in the top two or three. Talent really means people. The right (number of) people in the right job, at the right time and at the right place with the right knowledge, experience and tools to perform reliably.

The two biggest talent issues, according to recent “Supply Chain Management: Beyond the Horizon” research from Michigan State University and APICS Supply Chain Council, are recruiting new talent and developing future leaders. Let’s concentrate on the first of these.

A shortage of new recruits

There’s a shortage of new recruits for jobs in supply chain management. Transportation is a key activity in every supply chain. As a founding member of the Supply Chain Talent Academic Initiative, we discovered a big gap between demand for qualified supply chain management people from university undergraduate programs and the number of students graduating. This gap was about 6:1.

There is strong competition in hiring. Companies know that they need to actively pursue good people, and may have to pay more. It is better, and I argue it’s a lower total cost, to attract good, young people who fit your company and our industry culture than it is to hire a more mature person.

The “talent crisis” is not new. We have always had a responsibility to develop future generations of people for our industry. Many share personal objectives to nurture and develop those who will follow us in our jobs. Baby boomers are retiring. Millennials think, act and work differently. True, and true. New? I think not. Just different.

Our industry needs to recruit new entrants, people able and willing to work in an environment very different from that which young people seem to expect. As an industry, we must sell ourselves to potential employees. Be very fast, responsive and flexible in our hiring and on-boarding practices. Seek out those who will stay with us for the long haul. Hiring is an expensive process.

Position jobs in the rail industry as a career opportunity. Promote opportunities for good people to grow with us as future contributors to our firm’s success. Recognize the importance of providing people with a work/life balance that enables the job to get done, safely, effectively and efficiently so that people go home every day and look forward to coming to work tomorrow.

In an industry that has to work around the clock, this is not so easy, but it is a real challenge we all face. Provide people with opportunities to grow. Go beyond training for task-related activities so they are ready to be promoted. Support people in their family roles, their education, interests and contributions to society outside of work.

People often say they don’t want to invest in an individual because it may make that person more likely to leave. This is a myopic strategy. Industries recognized for good careers attract and keep good people. Let’s make rail a top-of-mind career.

The rail industry is a long-term career opportunity. Our people must be flexible, capable of thinking differently to rapidly respond to changes around us. We have to deliver safe, reliable service to help our supply chain partners achieve the outcomes demanded by the final consumers of everything we move — freight and passengers.

Jobs in supply chain are great career jobs. I well remember advice from my Dad when I was thinking about my career: “People will always need stuff.” Thanks for the great tip, Dad!

Nick Little is managing director of the Railway Management Certificate Program and Assistant Director of Executive Development Programs at the The Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University (MSU). He has extensive rail industry management and international experience, and is heavily involved in current plans to develop the Railway Research & Education Institute at MSU.

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