The development of the warehousing industry poses important policy challenges for national government and, especially, for local authorities. In the UK context, and explicitly in the Yorkshire region where our research is based, many of the areas that have suffered most from deindustrialisation are also those which have relied on warehousing work to drive job creation. This has been a viable strategy because warehousing work has boomed over recent years, particularly driven by the growth of e-commerce. Yet, the industry also faces some important challenges which have implications for policymakers seeking to create jobs and plan skills provision in regions where warehousing employment predominates. As part of the international Humans in Digital Logistics (HuLog) research consortium, which will run until late 2025, we aim to provide insights that can help support industry stakeholders in navigating these challenges.
While this research (funded under the CHANSE scheme) is only just beginning, some of the most pressing questions facing policymakers are already clear. Arguably foremost, from a jobs perspective, is the role of automation and digital technology in warehousing work. There has been much discussion of the potential for job displacement through automation in warehousing, most dramatically through robotisation but also through other productivity-focused measures; such as AI-driven picking systems which greatly increase the number of orders individual workers can process. The rapid overall growth of warehousing means that these potential effects on employment have so far been somewhat obscure, and much remains uncertain about the industry’s trajectory.
The situation is particularly complex because there is no simple linear story of technological progress. There are different pathways of technological change in warehousing, including robotisation, conveyor systems, digitally-enhanced picking systems, and human-augmenting technologies like exoskeletons. Moreover, the dynamics of automation and digital technology adoption are influenced by unpredictable questions about cost (is the capital investment too great for some firms?), market conditions (are business contracts sufficiently stable to justify a major investment, and which could be out of date if market requirements change?), and continuing limits facing the capability of the technology itself (for example robots, however sophisticated, are still unable to reliably perform certain tasks like picking items from shelves). The HuLog project will seek to better understand these questions, studying in-depth the forms of technological change that are visible in Yorkshire’s warehouses as well as those in regions of Belgium, Poland and Germany, and examining how technological innovations are implemented in the daily life of workplaces.
A second important issue for local policymakers is the way warehousing is influenced by geographical and infrastructural dynamics. These provide both opportunities and constraints. Areas of growth in the industry are those positioned close to major transport axes, and some authorities have been able to turn their geographical location into a comparative advantage in attracting warehousing industry investment and integrating the sector into their local economic development plans. This might ostensibly make it easier to anticipate spatial patterns of industrial change, but these local initiatives also need input at a regional and national level. From the industry perspective, access to affordable space in such locations is becoming increasingly limited.
Interestingly, these two challenges are not separate but closely linked: questions of space and automation are inseparable. For instance, one driver of automation is likely to be the desire to save on space. Where floor space is scarce, automated systems which can stack inventory higher and more densely become more attractive.
So, the quantity of warehousing jobs is something local policymakers will need to think about carefully in the future. But equally pertinent are questions about the nature of warehousing work. How are digital technologies changing skills profiles and training needs in warehousing work? How are warehouse operatives engaged in the implementation of digital technologies? And, if technologies lead to increases in the pace of work (enabling people to perform multiple tasks much more quickly), does this raise health and safety risks? These questions are already confronting local authorities, who are having to think if, and how, they can support the development of industries like warehousing to ensure the best possible outcomes for local labour markets.
The stakes are therefore very high, and the questions we have identified above require further research and reflection. Principles for a “human-centric” model of digital technology implementation in warehousing work are needed; to guide approaches to adoption which harness technological innovation while improving the quality of work, by investing in skills and engaging workers its implementation. Recent work by IFOW funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office is a welcome intervention in this space.
The questions raised by this transition relate not only to technology design development and deployment but also to local policy and service design. Place-based actors will need levers at their disposal to coordinate skills development so that workers can upskill while matching industry requirements; and enable them to engage effectively with employers in order to jointly shape the future of warehousing work. At present, this seems likely to be a big challenge; particularly for policymakers representing disadvantaged areas. It’s unclear whether national-level policy agendas such as Levelling Up provide sufficient autonomy and decentralisation to make this a reality at this stage. While more active industrial strategy may be one way of addressing this (eg through local Future of Work strategies), further engagement with local policymakers, people and businesses is needed to identify firstly, what changes are needed in the sector and secondly, how these can best be delivered in a way that could shape a more prosperous future for warehousing stakeholders across the board.
Charles Umney is Professor of International Work and Employment at Leeds University Business School. He is Primary Investigator on the UK package of the Humans in Digital Logistics (HuLog) research consortium, the overall coordinator of which is Professor Patrizia Zanoni. Project HuLog is supported by FWO Belgium, NSO Poland, UKRI United Kingdom, and the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung Germany under CHANSE ERA-NET Co-fund programme, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, under Grant Agreement no 101004509.
Dr Abbie Winton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. She works with Charles to deliver the UK package of the HuLog project.