Warehouses Are Calling In the Gig Workers

Date: Wednesday, October 11th, 2023
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The gig economy is starting to reach into the warehouse.

Logistics companies competing for workers are offering more flexibility in areas such as scheduling and choices on shifts as they vie for labor with companies like Uber Technologies and Instacart where workers make their own hours.

More operators “are using a flexible worker, and they’re using software not unlike Uber or Lyft or Grubhub” to fill slots, said Brian Devine, chief executive of Columbus, Ohio-based warehouse staffing agency Ignite Industrial Professionals. “That’s how they’re filling many of their holiday seasonal needs.”

The flexibility in a field known for rigid schedules and grueling workloads is a sign that the practices of app-driven operators are seeping into more traditional workplaces, particularly in a tight market for blue-collar workers. But warehouse managers aren’t dialing up gig workers the same way a passenger calls an Uber, partly because industrial jobs require specific training and expertise, logistics experts say.

“You can’t just have someone who lists themselves as a warehouse worker go into a facility,” said Hisham Khaki, president and founder of Alpharetta, Ga.-based flexible labor service HapiGig. “It actually takes someone who understands warehousing and knows how to operate a forklift.”

Employers hiring people on HapiGig’s platform, for example, choose from a list of available workers rather than being randomly assigned to whoever is online.

Workers set their availability in advance—for example, Thursdays and Fridays—and go through a background screening process with HapiGig, whose clients include third-party logistics provider Kenco Group, Swedish appliances manufacturer Electrolux and carpet maker Shaw Industries.

Employers can then see each person’s attendance rate and ratings from past employers before asking that worker to pick up a particular shift.

The share of logistics workers who have had a gig-type job where they chose which four- to six-hour shift they wanted rose to 21% this year from 15.1% in 2021, according to a survey by industrial staffing agency EmployBridge. About 43% of logistics workers surveyed said they would be interested in that kind of flexible schedule.

Warehouses have long used staffing agencies to find workers, particularly for the peak holiday season. But some are looking to fill jobs when they need people in a more targeted way, such as Monday mornings to catch up with e-commerce orders that came in over the weekend.

The idea is to adjust staffing for periods when volume is particularly low or high, experts say.

A gig worker “can be very productive and knock out a couple hundred orders that came in maybe unexpectedly because some influencer decided they like a certain type of makeup” and a product went viral on social media, said Devine of Ignite Industrial.

The practice also allows logistics companies to tap into a growing pool of workers across all industries who are looking for part-time work or more flexible schedules. About 22 million people were employed part-time by choice in September, up from 21 million a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which doesn’t track gig workers specifically.

Cathi Canfield, vice president of enterprise transformation at Atlanta-based EmployBridge, said companies hiring gig workers are finding they are able to reach new labor pools. Some workers on EmployBridge’s gig work platform have full-time jobs and are looking to bring in additional income, while others are juggling tasks such as caring for children or elderly parents, she said.

“We have a much higher proportion of women doing the gig work,” Canfield said, given their “family obligations and taking care of parents and that kind of thing.”

Even companies sticking with traditional full-time logistics workers are looking at how they can learn from the gig economy model to attract and keep employees.

PepsiCo is testing a platform that allows warehouse workers to easily swap shifts from their smartphones, among other functions, said John Phillips, senior vice president of customer supply chain and global go-to-market.

“There’s a ton to learn from the gig economy and how they attract and retain people,” Phillips told the annual Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals meeting last week in Kissimmee, Fla. “I think the companies to get this right will do a much better job staffing and retaining these types of positions.”

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