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Got a labour crisis? Look at automation

02 October 2021

THE UK has a labour shortage – and OK, for those of you currently going “but the whole world has a labour shortage”, I grant you, there are issues beyond the UK – but there is no doubt in my mind that the UK’s problems are being exacerbated, if not caused, by Brexit.

While the supermarket shelves are certainly not empty, they are not as well stocked as they could be and the shelf life of many fresh products seems to have taken a nose dive. And no one could have missed the miles (sometimes literally) of queues forming at fuel stations as rumours of no deliveries due to a lack of tanker delivery drivers spurred people to make sure that they, at least, didn’t run out of fuel.

Behind the scenes, industry, and again the logistics sector in particular, is also being hit by a lack of forklift operators. In fact, according to Toyota Material Handling UK, an ‘exceptional’ shortage of forklift drivers is prompting more UK companies to adopt automated materials handling equipment (MHE) to optimise the efficiency of their warehouse intralogistics processes.

As Paul Freeman from Toyota observes: “We hear a lot about the problems caused by the present lack of HGV drivers but the scarcity of qualified MHE operators is just as much of an issue for many UK supply chains.”

A recent study by Logistics UK showed that in 2019, 79,000 EU nationals left the UK logistics industry – around 7000 of whom were lift truck drivers.

Furthermore, with close to a third of Britain’s remaining forklift drivers said to be EU nationals, the decision to limit overseas workers’ access to the UK jobs market means that, in the longer term, the situation is only likely to become worse  – which, Toyota forecasts, will further hasten the take-up of automated technology.

Another company looking at the role automation can play in alleviating labour shortages, this time in the food and drink sector, is Omron. Stuart Coulton, the company’s UK market development manager, highlights that as the economy reopens following the pandemic, there are warnings from the sector that it is nearing a tipping point in terms of its ability to keep supermarket shelves stocked due to a worsening labour crisis. From harvesting and processing, to packaging and logistics, the entire food supply chain is being stretched to its limits by staff shortages, he says.

According to a recent report from the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), 78% of food and drink firms said they do not expect to have enough workers in 2021, with more than a third reporting chronic shortages and a quarter reporting that they are already in crisis and will have to rationalise/reduce output.

As I write, the furlough scheme is about to draw to a close, but whether this will help alleviate the current labour crisis remains to be seen. The Government is trying to tempt EU lorry drivers back to the UK to provide some temporary relief, but there is little appetite amongst the politicians in power to go back on the removal of freedom of movement, even in a limited way.

So maybe this is where those in crisis should be looking at automation to relieve the pressure. Although it's probably not going to prove a panacea to UK industry's post-Brexit challenges, it can at least be a positive step forward.

Charlotte Stoenstreet

Managing editor