Supply-chain talent shortage in Singapore as big data, sustainability come into play

The need is greater now as firms navigate the constant disruptions to global trade that have stemmed from the pandemic.

Angela Tan

Angela Tan

The Straits Times


Major companies like Dole, Johnson & Johnson, Henkel, 3M and Procter and Gamble have made Singapore their supply-chain hub. PHOTO: ST FILE

June 5, 2023

SINGAPORE – The logistics industry is a prime mover in employing brain power to meet the complex challenges of moving items from A to B as fast as possible, but its greatest challenge now is to overcome the sector’s own image problem.

The problem in essence is that for many people, especially young people, logistics conjures up unappealing images of harried workers unloading cartons from the back of a van in the blazing sun. Try selling that to a young job seeker.

Yet supply-chain management – industry-speak for logistics – requires people and leaders with the very traits the young possess: Nimbleness, innovativeness and IT savviness.

The need is ever greater now as firms navigate the constant disruptions to global trade that have stemmed from the pandemic.

Singapore is on the front line when it comes to meeting this challenge, given that 23 out of the top 25 global logistics companies have operations in the country, with many of them basing their regional headquarters in the city-state.

Major companies like Dole, Johnson & Johnson, Henkel, Schneider Electric, 3M and Procter & Gamble have also made Singapore their supply-chain hub.

Mr Eddie Lim, an executive director at the Singapore Logistics Association, told The Straits Times there is a shortage of manpower across logistics, but the problem is more acute among the “rank and file”.

“This is a constant problem. During the Covid-19 pandemic, some operators and people in customer services were displaced. The foreigners left the country and never returned. Other sectors like retail as well as food and beverage are also grappling with similar manpower issues,” he said.

“So what you see is a churn among the sectors because the skill sets for the rank and file are not generic and can be exported to other sectors.”

One home-grown family-owned logistics company is closing shop after operating here for nearly half a century due to the labour crunch. It expects to reap more money from the sale of its freehold commercial property than from its core operations.

Dr Faizal Yahya, a senior research fellow in the Governance and Economy Department at the Institute of Policy Studies, said there is a need to engage with Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – as they would form a significant part of the workforce in the near future.

Human resource experts said young people need to know that logistics and supply-chain management are expansive fields that go beyond shipping and basic goods handling.

This once-overlooked segment of the economy actually offers a wide range of career paths and opportunities, ranging from sourcing and procurement to merchandising, supply-chain planning and sales and operations.

There are also opportunities in sustainability, such as carbon-footprint management and environmental protection management issues many young people are passionate about.

As the sector evolves, new skills are required, focusing on technology such as artificial intelligence-driven predictive analytics, digital enablers and intelligent automation. Companies will have to invest in these skills and educational providers will need to offer these training requirements, Dr Faizal said.

This is crucial for an economy like Singapore’s, which relies heavily on trade.

Dr Faizal said: “Any shortage of supply-chain talent such as the middle managers would disrupt supply-chain operations. This would impact Singapore as a regional transit and distribution hub for various industries.”

Mr Lim added that there is already a push for the workforce to move up the value chain, as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digitalisation and automation.

“These have helped address to some extent the labour-intensive side of the work, but training takes time. Some aspects of the sector are not possible to fully automate yet,” he noted.

For example, despite the excitement over driverless vehicles, the sector still needs drivers to move things for now.

Singapore had more than 70,000 supply-chain professionals in 2021, and about 3,600 degree graduates entered the sector that year.

There are schemes available for companies to tap to upgrade their workforce.

One is the Workforce Transformation Programmes by Workforce Singapore that offer career-conversion programmes targeted at mid-career individuals to learn new skills and switch to jobs with better prospects.

Companies that hire mid-career individuals can get up to 90 per cent salary support for the programme duration. There are also similar career-conversion programmes for professional executives, supply-chain and logistics professionals and coordinators, small and medium-sized enterprise executives and sustainability professionals.

Another is the Support for Job Redesign under the Productivity Solutions Grant, where companies may receive up to 70 per cent funding for consultancy services, capped at $30,000.

Besides government programmes, private companies have also taken their own initiatives to beat the talent crunch.

VF Corporation, one of the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies known for brands like Vans, The North Face and Timberland, has established a VF Academy for Supply Chain in Singapore, offering structured in-house training.

The company relocated its Asia-Pacific headquarters for global product supply from Hong Kong to Singapore in 2021, as it looks to tap the talent pool in data and analytics here.

VF also aims to develop new specialist careers pathways in digital design and production for footwear and apparel.

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