Warehouse career progression guide: career paths and skills

It may be that you’re considering how to become a warehouse worker or it may be that you already work in the...

Nicholas Kira

2 November 2023

14 min read

It may be that you’re considering how to become a warehouse worker or it may be that you already work in the industrial sector and are looking for warehouse operative career progression. Either way, it’s important to know that warehousing is a vital component of the supply chain in the logistics sector, especially when it comes to the storage of goods and moving those goods on to the end user – whether a customer or a business.

It’s also a sector which offers a wide range of career opportunities for individuals at various stages of their career journey, from picker packer, to warehouse operative, to forklift truck driver, to warehouse manager, and so on.

In this comprehensive post, we’ll explore the career paths, essential skills, and continuous learning and development (including necessary training and certification) needed for you to forge a successful warehouse career path.

Beyond this, you may also want to consider why the wider industrial sector might be just the right fit for you.

Understanding the warehousing industry

Before we dive into the warehouse career ladder, and the skills you’ll need at each level, it’s essential to understand the warehousing industry’s significance in the UK. Warehouses are considered the backbone of the logistics and supply chain, ensuring the smooth flow of goods from manufacturers to various retailers and consumers. With the continued growth of e-commerce, the demand for skilled warehouse professionals has never been higher, so now’s as good a time as any to think about a career in warehousing.

It’s also important to understand the various tasks and operations that take place throughout a busy warehouse, to maintain the effective storage, management, and distribution of goods.

This is not an exhaustive list, but these vital tasks include:

Receiving goods

Goods will come in from suppliers, typically in trucks or containers. It’s then down to warehouse staff to unload, inspect, and verify the received items against purchase orders and ensure they’re what’s expected.

Inventory Storage

Storing goods in designated areas within the warehouse, utilising well-known storage practices, such as using racking systems, shelving, and bin locations.

From here, inventory levels, locations of items, and their movements are tracked, using Warehouse Management Systems (WMS).

Picking and Packing

First, warehouse staff pick items from their storage locations to fulfill customer orders, using industry methods, such as batch picking and zone picking.

Then those items are securely packed for transportation to customers, which involves the use of appropriate packing materials, accurate labelling, and providing the right documentation to be sent out with the goods.

Shipping and Distribution

Getting goods ready to be sent out, preparing the relevant shipping labels and generating packing lists, then ensuring those goods are loaded onto trucks (or other transport), ready to be delivered for customers.

This falls more under the logistics sector, so you may want to consider what would make you a success in that arena read our blog for a comprehensive guide to logistics careers and success.

Returns Handling

Managing items returned by customers, inspecting them for faults or damage, and making a decision as to whether they can be resold or need to be disposed of.

In some cases, returned items may not need to be disposed of but will require refurbishment or repairing before being restocked.

Safety and Compliance

This is an absolutely essential element of working in a busy warehouse, with lots of machinery and heavy goods. This part of warehousing involves enforcing safety protocols to protect workers from accidents and injuries, including providing the proper training, safety equipment, and the correct emergency procedures should something go wrong.

These safety protocols aren’t just isolated to an individual warehouse – they have to comply with both local and national regulations.

These tasks, plus many others aside, open up a number of job options for those looking at a warehouse career.

We’ll now delve into some of those options…

Warehouse career paths

From entry-level to the top: where could you go?

You might start life as a picker packer or an assembler and find yourself at the dizzy heights of warehouse manager within a few years, or maybe you’ll find yourself in a more analytical role.

The point is, a career path in warehousing doesn’t have to be linear – you can try many roles along the way, picking up the relevant skills and experience as you go, leading to a long and fruitful career in warehousing.

So, what are the roles available to you?

Entry-level positions

Warehouse Operative: A Warehouse Operative is responsible for tasks like packing, picking, and loading/unloading goods. This role requires a degree of physical fitness, attention to detail, and the ability to work in a fast-paced environment.

Picker Packer: A Picker Packer is responsible for accurately selecting and gathering products from storage, packaging them properly, and preparing them for shipment. This role is essential when it comes to ensuring that customer orders are fulfilled with precision and on time.

Assembler: An Assembler is responsible for constructing or assembling products, often from various components or parts, according to specific guidelines or instructions provided by the supplier. They play a vital role in creating finished goods that are ready for distribution. This role requires attention to detail and, above all, manual dexterity.

Forklift Operator: A Forklift Operator has to safely operate forklift trucks and other material-handling equipment to move, stack, and transport goods within the warehouse. Their role involves loading and unloading shipments, organising stock, and ensuring products are placed in the correct storage locations.

It’s important to note that Forklift Operators need to undertake training and obtain the necessary licences to use equipment safely.

Material Handler: A Material Handler plays a crucial role in the efficient movement and management of goods. Their responsibilities include safely handling materials and products, using equipment such as pallet jacks or hand trucks to transport items within the warehouse, and ensuring that products are placed in the correct locations.

Mid-Level positions

Managers walking through large warehouse controlling goods distribution.

Warehouse Supervisor/Team Leader: When considering a warehouse career path, you may well look to work your way up to a supervisory or team leader role. These roles involve overseeing a group of warehouse operatives, managing workflows, scheduling shifts, ensuring productivity targets are met, and generally seeing that all runs smoothly in the warehouse.

Inventory Controller: Another step up on the warehouse career ladder – Inventory Controllers are responsible for managing stock levels within the warehouse, conducting regular audits, and implementing processes which help to reduce wastage and improve efficiency. This role usually involves learning to use bespoke industry software, which you’ll be trained on along the way.

Quality Control Inspector: Quality Control Inspectors play an important part in customer satisfaction, in respect of the end user. Their role is to ensure that products meet the required standards and specifications. They perform inspections, identify defects, work to maintain product quality, and make sure those products meet regulatory standards.

Warehouse Shift Manager: Shift Managers oversee specific shifts within the warehouse, ensuring that operations run smoothly during their assigned hours. They manage staff, monitor productivity, and address any issues that may arise. To take on this role, you’d need experience in warehousing and leadership skills, with a strong focus on managing daily operations efficiently.

Operations Coordinator: An Operations Coordinator is responsible for the efficient management and coordination of daily warehouse activities. They oversee workflow, supervise warehouse staff, and ensure that orders are processed accurately and on time. Operations Coordinators also play a vital role in inventory control, quality assurance, and maintaining a safe working environment. In addition to this, they look to maintain communication between different warehouse teams, external partners, and customers. Overall, it’s quite a busy role!  

Advanced positions

Warehouse Lead: It may be that your career objective as a warehouse worker, is to aim for the sky – go as high as you possibly can. If so, then the role of Warehouse Lead is where you should set your sights. A Warehouse Lead serves as a key point of contact on the warehouse floor, playing a vital role in supervising and guiding the activities of warehouse staff. Among many other tasks, they help to train newly-hired staff, enforce safety protocols, and maintain a well-organised workspace. Their leadership drives team performance and contributes to the overall success of warehouse operations.

Logistics Coordinator/Manager: Some warehouse professionals transition into roles focused on the broader logistics and supply chain. Logistics Coordinators/Managers oversee the movement of goods, transportation, and distribution. This involves working closely with external partners, such as carriers and suppliers, to ensure timely deliveries and efficient logistics operations. Logistics Coordinators/Managers also play a crucial role in looking to enhance supply chain efficiency and cost-effectiveness, so a head for figures is a must in this role.

Supply Chain Analyst: Supply Chain Analysts are ‘number crunchers’ – using data and analytics to optimise supply chain operations. They identify trends, develop strategies, and make informed decisions to enhance efficiency and reduce costs. They also use that data to maintain inventory levels, forecast, plan transportation, and reduce lead times.

Continuous Improvement Manager: A Continuous Improvement Manager, somewhat unsurprisingly, focuses on identifying then implementing processes that enhance the day-to-day functioning of warehouse operations. They lead initiatives to streamline these operations, reduce waste, and improve productivity. This is a role which requires background in process improvement, the ability to drive change, and specific training – for example, knowledge of the Six Sigma methodologies.

Distribution Centre Manager/Director: When it comes to a warehouse career, a Distribution Centre Manager/Directors sits right at the top of the tree, managing larger-scale warehouses or distribution centers. They’re responsible for overseeing the efficient movement of goods, coordinating with logistics partners, and ensuring that distribution operations meet company objectives. This role requires extensive experience in the warehousing industry, leadership skills, and a background in logistics and supply chain management.  

Essential Skills for Warehouse Careers

The skills you’ll need to rise to the top

To pursue a career path in the warehouse industry, you’ll need a mixture of skills to move through the ranks and be successful. These include technical skills, which you’ll learn along the way (usually through on-the-job training or formal education – namely courses or modules), and soft skills, which you may already have; such as the ability to communicate clearly.  

Technical skills

Asian Chinese senior warehouse worker operating forklift working in industry factory

Forklift Operation: Proficiency and experience in operating forklifts and other material-handling equipment safely and efficiently.

Inventory Management: The ability to use warehouse management systems (WMS) and other software to track and manage inventory levels accurately.

Warehouse Automation: Familiarity with automated systems, such as conveyor belts, robotics, and automated storage and retrieval systems.

RFID and Barcoding: Understanding of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and barcode scanning technology for efficient inventory tracking.

Transportation and Shipping: A thorough understanding of shipping processes, including preparing shipments, generating shipping labels, and coordinating with carriers.

Data Analysis: The ability to use data analysis tools and techniques to identify trends, optimise processes, and make data-driven decisions – vital for certain roles, as mentioned earlier in this post.

Supply Chain Knowledge: An in-depth understanding of supply chain principles and processes, enabling you to contribute to overall logistics efficiency.  

Soft skills

Communication: Effective communication skills are essential when it comes to collaborating with colleagues, suppliers, and customers.

Leadership: Leadership skills become increasingly important as you progress in your warehouse career, moving up to supervisory and managerial roles – enabling you to motivate your team and provide them with clear directions.

Problem-Solving: The ability to identify and solve problems quickly, such as overstocking or  sudden rise in demand, is valued in warehouse operations and will take you far in your career.

Health and Safety Knowledge: A career in warehousing can be physically demanding, so understanding health and safety regulations is vital – not least because it helps to prevent accidents and injuries in the workplace.

Attention to Detail: Precise inventory management and quality control – particularly in respect of inspecting products for defects – require a keen eye for detail.

Adaptability: The warehousing industry is ever evolving, with new technology being brought in all the time to ensure the smooth running of operations. Being adaptable and open to learning new tools and techniques will help further your warehousing career.

Numerical Skills: For roles involving inventory management, supply chain analysis, and logistical operations, strong numerical skills are essential, as you’ll be working with figures on a daily basis and making data-driven decisions to ensure efficiency and cost-savings.  

Training for Warehouse Careers

While you may not need a formal education to start in the warehouse, if you have certain career objectives as a warehouse worker, you’ll most likely need to enrol in certain courses or undertake specific training.

The role of higher education in career advancement

There’s no doubt about it, higher education plays a vital role in career advancement within the warehousing industry. While many entry-level positions don’t require formal degrees, pursuing higher education can open doors to more specialised and senior roles.

A degree in logistics, supply chain management, or a related field will give you a deeper understanding of warehouse operations, inventory management, and the broader supply chain. Taking on a course such as this will equip you with advanced skills in data analysis, process optimisation, supply chain management, and decision making in general.

In addition to this, higher education programmes often incorporate industry-specific knowledge, which, if looking to move up the warehousing career ladder, will prepare you for leadership roles, enabling you to contribute to the efficiency, safety, and compliance of warehouse operations.

By combining hands-on experience with a higher education background, you’ll stand out in  what is a very competitive job market and be able to secure mid-level and advanced positions, allowing for a fulfilling and financially rewarding career in warehousing.

Training programmes and certifications

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are countless training programmes you could take on or certificates you can get, but the following are examples of training you may want to consider to advance your warehousing career

Forklift Operator Certification: Forklift operation is a fundamental skill in warehousing, so obtaining the correct certification is well worth your while. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance on forklift training and certification.

Health and Safety Training: The British Safety Council, among other organisations, offer health and safety courses specifically tailored to warehouse environments. These courses are essential for maintaining a safe workplace, and will only serve to make you a more attractive candidate to employers.

Quality Control and Assurance Certifications: Certifications such as ISO 9001 (quality management) and Six Sigma (process improvement) can enhance your skills in quality control and process optimisation, leading to more specialised roles within the warehouse.

Warehouse Management System (WMS) Training: Proficiency in WMS software will make you a valuable asset to any employer in the warehousing industry. Consider attending training programmes specific to the WMS used in your workplace.

Professional Logistics Certifications: Certifications from organisations like the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) or the Institute of Supply Chain Management (IoSCM) can enhance expertise in logistics and supply chain fields, giving you even greater credibility when applying for warehousing roles.

Team Leadership and Management Training: If your warehouse career objectives involve moving up to supervisory or managerial roles, leadership and management courses can be beneficial. Most employers will provide in-house leadership training or certainly be able to point you in the right direction.  

Making a success of your warehousing career

Material handler with fluo jacket in a warehouse

The warehousing industry offers diverse career paths and plenty of opportunities for growth. Whether you’re just starting out or looking to advance your career, acquiring the right skills, keeping up to date with industry trends, and knowing the various different roles available to you will be key to your success.

But these things alone aren’t enough – you’ll also need dedication, hard work, and commitment to take you that bit further.

As you navigate your way through the various career paths within warehousing, remember that everyone’s industry journey is unique to them. Each person’s experiences, choices, and training will shape their warehouse career progression. Be open to learning all the time, and look for the right opportunities when they come along. You may well, for example, start as a Warehouse Operative and end up in the role of Supply Chain Analyst – ultimately it’s up to you.

The warehousing industry welcomes those who are eager to learn, adapt, and grow , and view challenges as opportunities. Be that person, and get set for a long and successful career in the warehousing industry.

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