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Cold storage labor recruitment challenges exacerbated by pandemic

How technology can help you attract and retain staff in a harsh working environment. Pieter Feenstra, CEO Automation North America, elaborates.

You already know the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge global manufacturing supply chains. Everything from lack of semiconductors to the Suez Canal blockage to labor shortages slowed certain industries.

For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on staffing challenges. According to the OECD Employment Outlook 2021, developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation, approximately 114 million jobs were lost worldwide in 2020.

Despite how devastating the coronavirus crisis has been, warehouses were having issues attracting and retaining employees long before it started, particularly in the cold storage industry. Why work in a harsh, cold environment – such as a freezer where giant air conditioning units blast frigid air and noisy equipment makes it hard to hear – when plenty of jobs in ambient warehouses exist? Or jobs outside the warehouse for that matter?

That’s where innovative warehouse technology can help because it makes jobs easier and safer. When cold storage workers can use automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), other robotics or voice-directed solutions to improve working conditions, warehouses like yours are more likely to attract and retain employees in an ultra-competitive, tight labor market.

Baby, it’s cold inside

Although working in the cold chain is tough, cold storage is integral for the fresh and frozen food industry. Furthermore, the cold chain market is booming, so the need for employees in this sector will continue. The demand for labor is further amplified by deliveries comprising less than full pallets. This is driven by retailers asking for more SKUs but lower quantities of each, which requires more picking.

The question is how we can make working in this sector attractive enough in order for the staff to stay or to join and to make sure that cold chain companies can deliver to their customers.  

Technology to the rescue

Success in the cold storage environment relies on technology that includes ASRS and shuttle systems, different types of robotics and sometimes voice picking. These solutions reduce the number of staff required in the freezer and allow remaining staff in the freezer to keep protective gear on while working in harsh conditions.

For example, ASRS and shuttle systems can eliminate all manual handling of pallets in the freezer. Handling of pallets with forklifts or pallet-jacks will then be far less and also limited only to the expedition zone, which can often be raised to higher temperatures.

Further, there are a number of robotics solutions that can help. First we see the rise of layer picking solutions, where full layers of products are automatically picked, taking away the need for manual picking. Also autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can come to the rescue as they can bring pallets or cases from the freezer to the outside for picking, so the warehouse workers can stay in the ambient area.

Finally, voice-directed technology allows employees to speak commands rather than taking off their gloves and pushing buttons or writing down orders on paper. In fact, voice, which enables people to work hands- and eyes-free, can help your employees complete 20-plus processes including order selection, put-away, replenishment, cycle counting and returns, while significantly increasing productivity and accuracy.

A chilly – yet bright – future

Those of you in the cold storage industry are all too familiar with challenges surrounding staffing. However, technology in the form of automation, robotics and voice can help.

A combination of these solutions could virtually eliminate the need for employees to step into a freezer, making processes more productive, accurate and efficient. And they can help you attract and keep workers amidst the ongoing labor shortage.

Learn how you can leverage technology to overcome ongoing cold storage labor recruitment challenges so you can make the most of your workforce. Check it out.


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