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Ferro: Supply chain woes get personal

By David Ferro - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 27, 2021

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David Ferro

You can’t go 2 screen inches online, looking over headlines, without running into the phrase “supply chain.” In each headline, the implicit word “woes” and the number of exclamation marks following that word seem to increase every day. Empty shelves and delayed shipments speak volumes: We’re in a bit of a crisis, and we’re moving into the holiday season. What can we do individually?

Some argue we are currently at the peak of the worst of the supply-chain woes and that President Biden’s directive to move the port of Los Angeles to 24/7 operations will relieve congestion enough to get things moving. That port, along with Long Beach, represents 40% of shipped imports in the U.S.

Some authors point to particular problems like “longshore unions” or “No one wants to work anymore.” Some take advantage of the crisis to make political points.

But the problems are systemwide and global. While stretched, and despite no one being in charge of the whole thing, the system worked fairly well — until it didn’t. The COVID crisis has created repercussions and turned minor issues into major ones, acting like dominoes in a cascade of effects: ships stranded outside ports; ports overflowing with containers; drivers scarce; truck parts scarce; unkempt roads impacting truck wear and tear.

The supply chain needs more than truckers. Raw material and factory output worldwide have dropped. Just-in-time delivery means less stockpiling. Some producers lessened output — everything from automobiles to electronics to hospital staff just to stay viable — only to see a crunch when consumers demanded more.

Four million workers are missing from the U.S. workforce from two years ago in what Texas A&M University management professor Anthony Klotz has termed the “Great Resignation.” Workers have left jobs, often burned out (especially in health care), looking for better working conditions, returning to school, caring for their families in the face of a COVID-created childcare crisis, or simply recovering from sickness.

This might benefit workers long term as they have generally flipped the script on employers who now desperately search for ways to attract employees. A Gallup poll recently found labor unions enjoying the highest approval since the mid-’60s. Articles in business journals increasingly address the need to respect workers to attract and retain them. Workers moving to higher income jobs will generally increase economic output.

One thing we could do to help the supply chain, I suppose, is to become truck drivers. There is an estimated shortfall of 100,000 truck drivers in the U.S,. and most drivers, between ages 50 and 60, will retire soon. The loneliness, long hours and separation from family aren’t for everyone. Many have left the long-distance trucking industry to work locally for UPS, Amazon and the like. No wonder the rush is on to create autonomous driving trucks. I don’t think that will help us this Christmas, however.

Another thing we could do is to buy American or buy locally. That takes some elements out of the equation. Head downtown and shop local stores. Buy used. Check out Consumer Reports’ guide to American-made products and how to avoid false claims.

Of course, American products still require raw materials and production outside of the U.S. The automobiles with the most domestically created components, for example, have approximately 25% of their components created outside the U.S.

Economist Paul Krugman notes that consumer good purchases rose 34% since early 2020. People faced spending more time at home. They bought laptops to work from home, Pelotons to stay in shape, wood to do home repair — thus helping create the rise in lumber prices — and garden supplies to supplement food on empty store shelves. Consumer behavior may not have changed to this degree since WWII. Meanwhile, fewer dollars went to experiences such as restaurants, concerts and travel.

One thing we can do is buy experiences instead of stuff. Only problem: The COVID crisis hasn’t disappeared. So, get vaccinated and wear a mask. That helps get more people out and about healthily. While you are at it, elect community leaders who understand the need for good health and good infrastructure such as ports and roads.

Meanwhile, my family will focus on the experience of getting together and exchanging mostly homemade gifts this holiday season. We can be creative in the face of the crisis. But, if you want to guess when purchased items will show up, you might want to start your shopping now.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9

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