Playing on Columbus’ strengths: A focus on workforce is paying off in logistics, but more remains to be done

We ♥ (heart) logistics.

The award-winning UPS ad campaign certainly strikes home for Columbus. The city is naturally attractive as a distribution and logistics hub for its geographic access to 46 percent of the U.S. population within a 10-hour drive, as well as strong supply chain talent and value.

In fact, the logistics industry employs 9 percent of Central Ohio’s workforce.

But just like with manufacturing, distribution and logistics jobs may not be the first thought of those entering the workforce, says Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020.

“It’s still probably a misunderstood term and a misunderstood industry,” he says.

Jeff Zimmerman, director of the Columbus Region Logistics Council, says logistics is a term that has been around forever.

“But no one has ever really known what logistics was until UPS turned it into a little ad campaign,” he says. “And we heart logistics suddenly makes logistics a little bit chic, fashionable or at least visible.”

Although Columbus’ geography and a clustering effect allow the region to win some things, McDonald says there’s been an intentional effort on top of that by business, government and education.

“The industry itself — end users, shippers, as well as 3PLs [third-party logistics] and a variety of other service providers — has come together and really worked on the workforce,” he says.

Advocating on behalf of the industry

One focus of the Columbus Region Logistics Council is developing a skilled workforce with 21st century work skills as a competitive advantage.

“Business doesn’t have the opportunity to slow down to train an employee,” Zimmerman says. “They’ve got to come in with a prerequisite skill.”

The council advocates to both students and student’s parents at all levels — secondary, post-secondary and vocational/technical — so they are aware of not only jobs but also career opportunities in the logistics industry at-large, Zimmerman says.

“That’s been one of the things that the logistics council has done really successfully for our region: We’ve been good cheerleaders, good advocates and good stewards on behalf of the success and the ongoing growth of the industry,” he says.

By putting a focus on workforce, the industry has created better communication to the educational system, which has responded through curriculum and programs that allow students to matriculate into the workforce better equipped, better prepared and more successful.

Both The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College have logistics degrees, and OSU has a master in business logistics engineering. The MLBE program focuses on supply chain optimization and technology, allowing students the rare opportunity for hands-on experience running a transportation management system.

“The industry is increasingly more sophisticated, and as a result of that we’ve got to work closely with education to make sure that we can make all of those pathways visible and keep the pipeline of talent flowing through the system into industries successfully,” Zimmerman says.

Being proactive for future growth

The traditional methods businesses use to seek logistics talent still work today, Zimmerman says, but they need to be a little more proactive with recruiting.

“Are they sponsors of programs, and do they have visibility?” he says “Are they actively engaged in the internship process to bring talent into their environment to create awareness — to educate and bring that student through a successful experience so that they can go out and be a mouthpiece for not only the business, but for the industry at-large?”

Katy Keane, an adjunct logistics professor at OSU and president of Koncatenate, a supply chain consulting practice, sees the industry changing.

“There’s a lot of automation that’s going on right now in terms of distribution centers,” she says. “Companies are spending millions of dollars in high-tech automation for automated sorting and retrieval systems or things like that.”

Employees no longer are just picking and packing boxes, and it takes a more tech-savvy labor force to handle high-tech equipment.

Keane also foresees a potential truck driver shortage, especially with the new hours of service rules and safety regulations that are weeding out drivers.

“We’re working on training those logistician leaders of the future with some excellent programs, incredible faculty and all of that, but again, my concern is the ones who actually have to execute the work,” she says. “We need to do a better job in educating the middle market, the middle labor pool.”

“We have worked and continue to work,” Zimmerman says. “As the pace quickens and growth increases, we’re going to need more people. And so we’ve got to be able to bring more people into the system, attracted to opportunities in the industry and then prepared with the right levels of training.”


Learn more about logistics with a related story: E-commerce — A sea change in retail


How to reach: Columbus 2020, (614) 225-6063 or; Columbus Region Logistics Council, (614) 225-6086 or; The Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business, Department of Marketing & Logistics, (614) 292-8808 or