Webinar explores labour challenges facing the logistics sector

By Isobel Duxfield / Updated: 29 May 2023

The freight sector is facing an unprecedented jobs crisis. Rapidly changing technologies, the impacts of the pandemic, and long-term staff shortages are raising multiple challenges for employers, both in the public and private sectors. At the same time, urban freight is responsible for 25% of CO2 emissions from urban transport, representing 10 to 15% of vehicle equivalent miles travelled on city streets.

Decarbonising the sector is a huge challenge, which requires completely new ways of thinking and working. However, changes also come with a need to place the welfare of workers higher on the agenda. POLIS' Just Transition Webinar Series brought together experts from across logistics to examine the future of jobs in the sector, the challenges ahead and the responses needed.

Urban freight is undergoing a transformation, one which is having significant implications for the sector’s workforce. New players are continually emerging on the logistics scene, from instant grocery delivery apps to micro-locker operators. New partnerships are also being forged, creating exciting opportunities for distributing goods across the city and beyond. Meanwhile, new technologies are also radically reframing the skills needed, not just by drivers, but by functions across the industry. Indeed, the emergence and scale-up of small electric vehicles, white-label hubs, barrier-free access and micro-hubs are transforming the entire supply chain.

At the same time, current geopolitical tensions — the Ukraine war, rising energy prices, and the availability of specific raw materials to name a few — are burdening global supply chains with consequences for users and employees in the logistics sector. All these changes have had repercussions on the human resources required: jobs have changed, some have been lost and many more gained. While shortages, shifts, and skills shake-ups have been part of a long-term trend, COVID-19 accelerated this transformation, renewing the urgency of action.

Gig platforms, which are now playing a significant role in the logistics sector, are also raising questions for (and, indeed, growing scrutiny of) urban delivery workers and employers. Instant delivery platforms have introduced radical new business models which provide a new type of flexible working, facilitating employment. In Paris, the number of full-time couriers leapt by over 40% between 2016 and 2021, and New York is now home to an astonishing 65,000 delivery drivers.

Around 3 million professional drivers are employed in road transport and logistics in Europe today. However, in 2022, according to the International Road Transport Union (IRU), there were 425,000 unfilled truck driver jobs across Europe. Last year alone, a 44% increase in demand for professional drivers was underpinned by the sector’s lack of appeal to younger potential recruits and women. The IRU’s study — which provides an overview of countries across Europe — showed that truck, bus, and coach driver shortages in Europe are, in the IRU’s words, "spiralling out of control", fuelled by increased transport demand and an ageing driver population. 

Focusing on the new developments on the sector is key to attracting employees. Log!Ville is an innovation centre for the logistics ecosystem. The organisation invites companies to experience future technologies which are already commercially available, but not yet mainstream, and how these can be implemented, so what are the processes needed, the returns and challenges. Last-mile delivery workers often face problematic working conditions. Indeed, recent years have seen these propelled to the fore of political debate around transport labour worldwide, as working conditions, labour rights and benefits have been vigorously contended between operators, local authorities, unions and the workers themselves.

In Brussels, an innovative approach is putting workers at the forefront while keeping a long-term sustainability mindset. Urbike is a cargo bike cooperative, now five years old, with 40 employees, including over 30 couriers. What sets Urbike apart is its cooperative model. "There are too many precarious jobs where profitability is based on the last-mile drivers. We wish to shift this, and we have designed a company where the workers are shareholders, where our purpose is supported by workers and citizens", said Renaud Sarrazin, co-founder of Urbike. Indeed, the organisation has been awarded the Financité & FairFin label, which certifies that the capital invested in Urbike finances activities that generate social and/or environmental benefits based on societal criteria. In 2020, Urbike won the Social Economy Award for the most inspiring company in Brussels in terms of social impact.

This article originally appeared on POLIS Network. Read the full report here: Urban Freight Just Transition Webinar: “Delivering the jobs" - POLIS Network

Image produced by Alessia Giorgiutti

Urban freight/city logistics