National emergencies have a way of uniting us. They also have a way of highlighting those things that go unnoticed during everyday life, but are essential to maintaining the standard of living we expect. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly doing that now.
Nothing brings this into sharper relief than a trip to the grocery store. Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen toilet paper and other goods empty from store shelves. This is an unfamiliar experience for most of us who are used to getting whatever we need at the closest Costco or even delivered right to our door. However, what we’re seeing is not a shortage of goods. It’s an exposure to how an unknown shock to the supply chain can disrupt the balance of our global logistics network.
In the supply chain, much of the focus today is on innovation for the “last mile” – deliveries that get goods to the customer. So much has been made of the shift in this segment from driving to the mall to the delivery person leaving our order at the front door. There’s also a lot of investment and work being put into improving efficiencies linking production and shipping centers such as export seaports, the so-called “first mile.” But it’s the “middle mile” of the goods movement network that often is overlooked, but does much of the work that makes our economy run -- bridging the gap between the manufacturer and the final delivery.
Right now, the middle mile of the logistics network is doing all it can to get the goods and products needed to restock shelves and deliver the medicines and equipment needed by our healthcare providers to treat our sick and most vulnerable. Doing that requires the focused and concerted effort of truck drivers, railroad operators, warehouse workers, dock workers and numerous others. Many companies are also stepping up to support this middle mile and those who work within it, offering things like technical support to move more functions online and providing safe truck parking locations so that drivers can find a place to rest and eat.
Utah is well placed, by grace of geography and long-range thinking generations ago, to continue to be a crossroad in this shifting landscape and to provide that vital goods movement link in the US economy. Now more than ever we should all be able to recognize the need for a robust and organized logistics network to support us all.