Many things change and often for the better. However, after reading an article in the Huffington Post last year, we realized that one of the challenges of implementing WMS software in the past 20 years has not gotten much better in the last 11 – Illiteracy. Another warehouse workforce language challenge that has grown in the last 20 years in the US (more in some parts of our country than others) is English as a Second Language (ESL). According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, almost one in ten adults of working age in the U. S. has limited proficiency in English.

We don’t talk much about these things and a good search of “warehouse illiteracy” or “bilingual warehouse workforce” or the like turns up nothing specific, but my clients, colleagues and I personally have had to deal with the impacts of the warehouse workforce not being able to read RF Terminals or Computer Screens for a long time.

A few true stories:

  • We had a person spend several hours trying to train a lift truck operator on how to use the WMS to perform pallet picking, pallet replenishment, cycle counting and pallet transfers only to discover that the operator could not read.
  • One client recently took over an operation and found that over 70% of the RF Users could not read.
  • A pallet in/pallet out facility saw 100% turnover in the lift drivers who had to use true work queue, task-driven assignments with task interleaving because they could not read.

While it is a noble cause to try to change illiteracy rates and teach people how to read English, we practitioners often have to work with what we find in the wild which may be the wrong material handling equipment, improper racking or a workforce that won’t be able to read training materials and messages on the WMS computer screens.

So what are we doing or can we do to work with language challenges in the warehouse? One of our clients, Wagner Logistics, shared some stories about their workforce language challenges through a discussion with Wagner’s Director of IT, Joe Johnson:

At Wagner Logistics, we have several locations with language challenges, particularly one acquired with an extremely high illiteracy rate among the warehouse workforce. Here are some of our specific challenges and what we’ve done or plan to do:

– In the case of something like a WMS implementation, we approach rollout and training in a couple of different ways:

  • Develop quick reference documentation like pictures for tutorials and as many numeric options as possible, as much of our documentation can’t be words.
  • Use more verbal instruction as opposed to written documentation.

– We’ve had situations where there might be tons of RF equipment in the facility with only one scanner who directs the put away for others, such as clerks directing a lot of traffic vs. the drivers independently finding where they need to go. That means extra labor costs.

– In certain areas of the country, English as a second language (if it’s spoken at all), seems to be a more prevalent challenge. You can have great technology – and you put it in your warehouse and it doesn’t always work the way you think it will. The main language challenge for Wagner overall has been not so much from illiteracy as a lack of English speaking and reading abilities. Temp hires are greatly affected by this issue. While from a cost perspective Wagner has not gone to voice picking, it has been discussed as a future option, in addition to pick-to-light systems. This has also impacted Wagner in an unexpected way; having an influence on hiring practices at certain levels. All things being equal from an attitude/knowledge/ experience level, Wagner is now giving preference to bilingual candidates.

Wagner has approached the community leaders and chambers of commerce about potentially offering reading/literacy programs in the community.

Here are some recent statistics on illiteracy:

How are you handling illiteracy or other language barriers among your warehouse workforce? Contact us today and let us know – we’d like to post your story (anonymously if desired).