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Educating Tomorrow’s Supply Chain Professionals

October 11, 2012


In a recent interview with the editorial staff at SupplyChainBrain, John L. Kent, director of logistics and supply-chain management programs at Missouri State University, stated that there is a greater “awareness among students of supply-chain management as a career.” [“How SCM Education Is Changing With the Times,” 18 September 2012] Kent notes that in his own young program, he has watched it “grow from zero to almost 125 undergrad students today.” He notes that enrollment in the program is “up from 60 just in the past four years.” In his program (and apparently in many others) the biggest challenge is “obtaining adequate faculty resources.” The article continues:

“Previously, he says, the choice of supply chain as a major was made almost exclusively by college juniors and seniors. Today, there are a handful of freshmen in the program, indicating an earlier interest in the topic. The curriculum is changing, too. Like many others around the country, the university’s program began with a focus on logistics and transportation. That approach reflected the large number of trucking companies around Springfield, Missouri. And while the topic has remained at the forefront, the subsequent years have seen a broadening of the program’s emphasis to include marketing, leading toward a comprehensive major in logistics and supply-chain management.”

Since marketing is now included in the curriculum, I hope that classes on how to use big data effectively are being created. I believe such an understanding is going to be a critical tool in the kit of future supply chain professionals. The pool of supply chain professionals is already low. As supply chain analyst Lora Cecere notes, “Supply chain talent is constrained.” [“Buckle Up! I think it will be a WILD Ride.” Supply Chain Shaman, 13 September 2012] Kent reports that “demand by business for trained graduates still exceeds the available supply, although ‘we think we’ve made a lot of progress in meeting that demand.'” Although the ultimate choice of a major lies with the student, the SCB article concludes:

“The university is seeking out students with ‘a positive attitude,’ embracing marketing and customer service as much as the discipline of logistics, says Kent. ‘We’re looking for people who can help to add value, and have a passion for our field.’ For a student studying supply-chain management, the future is bright, he says.”

Cecere claims that professionals looking “to find a solution for the supply chain talent gap” are discovering that “there are more questions than answers.” At the moment, the talent gap, Cecere claims, is most readily apparent at the top. She reports, “Supply chain leadership teams are facing a talent shortage.” According to Cecere, that shortage “is driven by three forces: baby boomer retirement, growth in emerging economies, and growing recognition of the importance of supply chain as a discipline.” Before discussing Cecere’s insights on how to address high level SCM talent shortages, I’d like to share how one program is helping college students familiarize themselves with a globalized supply chain. The editorial staff at SupplyChainBrain learned of this program during an interview with Chris Schrage, an instructor of marketing at the University of Northern Iowa. During the interview, he described “a unique global trade-practices project that involved students from the U.S. and Brazil, and artisans from Latin America.” [“A Unique Teaching Tool for SCM Students,” 17 September 2012] The article reports:

“In a pilot project carried out at the University of Northern Iowa, students employed video conferencing to communicate with their counterparts in Brazil. Through the auspices of a non-profit organization, they worked with Brazilian women to market their handicrafts in the U.S., according to Schrage. In weekly conferences, they reviewed marketing techniques in addition to such key details as the Harmonized Code System. The students selected a range of handmade products, then delved into U.S. consumer tastes in order to sell them. Items included napkins, pillowcases and dish towels. Once they had the products in hand, participants undertook a research project which included samples and a survey that was conducted both in the U.S. and Brazil. Results were then analyzed and compared.”

That may sound like a simple project to undertake; but, the students soon learned that nothing is simple that involves international trade. The article explains:

“Although the Brazilian students had to be able to speak English, there were still language and cultural barriers to overcome. Time-zone differences were a particular challenge, says Schrage. ‘We had to keep adjusting the time for meetings. Sometimes the understanding of what the other party was supposed to do was not clear.’ Yet another factor to consider was logistics. ‘It turns out the cost of shipping a box of the product was more than the price of the product,’ Schrage says. Students also dealt with issues of fair-trade certification, order lead times and the minimum volume of product that was needed to justify its importation. Nevertheless, the project proved to be a valuable learning experience for the students. Schrage now wants to expand the effort to include several countries.”

There simply is no better teacher than experience. These kinds of programs will help better prepare future supply chain professionals for the challenges they will face. Returning to the current high-level supply chain talent gap, Cecere asserts, “No one has an answer.” Nevertheless, she shares “some insights on the approaches teams are trying.” She notes that the first step for addressing any problem is obtaining a clear understanding of it. She writes, “Despite thirty years of supply chain evolution, … executive teams are still struggling to understand supply chain.” As you can imagine, that makes addressing the challenge of what skills a supply chain management professional needs to master more difficult. Cecere reports, “In the last year, the talent gap has become more acute.” She continues:

“It is a common for executives to look at the situation and question why jobs have been vacant for SO long. Many wonder if ‘the HR department is doing their job.’ In short, it is a new era. There are new obstacles. Closing the gap of understanding by the supply chain executive team is the first place to start.”

To help her better understand the talent gap situation, Cecere teamed with Karin Bursa, Vice President of Logility marketing, “to complete a survey of 44 Logility clients on the state of talent in the supply chain.” Over half of the respondents indicated that they had unfilled “supply chain planning jobs” and that it took an average of five months to fill vacancies. Cecere writes:

“Business pain is acute in the area of demand planning. … I believe that this is only going to get worse. Building retreads – stealing planners from other companies – is not going to be an answer. I also believe that hiring students from supply chain programs at Universities will not resolve the problem. Why? The graduates from schools like Penn State are heavily recruited. As a result, only large companies with well-established recruiting programs will be successful with this approach.”

At least that is good news for college students majoring in supply chain management. At a time when other college graduates are struggling to find work, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for SCM graduates. Cecere indicates that the next challenge that must be faced to address the talent gap is corporate silos. She writes:

“While companies talk of breaking down vertical silos, only 27% of companies actively manage supply chain careers focused on cross-functional training (across make, source and deliver); and only 16% have a human resources department focused on the management of supply chain talent. … In the survey responses, there is a clear gap in job progression opportunities. Skill requirements are also changing. The planner today needs to be a combination of analytical skills, business knowledge and influence skills.”

Cecere is not very optimistic about closing the talent gap any time soon. “Demand is eclipsing supply,” she writes. “The gap will grow larger. Buckle your seatbelt.” She admits, “There are no ‘Sure-fire’ answers.” Nevertheless, she offers a list of “things people are trying:

Invest and Grow your Own. I do not believe that the industry need for planners will be satisfied by the current programs at business schools. Graduating students are being courted heavily, and many have unrealistic expectations. I think that companies will need to actively recruit from other disciplines – engineers and math students – and train them through active cross-functional development programs to be supply chain leaders. The Johnson & Johnson Gold Program or the Intel Supply Chain Masters Program are good reference models for the industry.”

The fact that many universities are now offering undergraduate degrees in supply chain management makes the picture a little brighter than Cecere paints it. Nevertheless, I believe that her recommendation to recruit actively from a number of disciplines still makes a great deal of sense. She continues:

Actively Partner with Local Schools. Go to your local school and try to get momentum with internships and co-op programs. Work to train talent in disciplines that are not as great in demand.”

In previous posts about high unemployment rates, I’ve noted that U.S. job openings exist for people with specific skills. I’ve also noted that in Germany companies don’t face this skill shortage because they utilize apprentice programs that ensure a pool of skilled labor is always available. Many of these German programs team with local universities in a way similar to that suggested by Cecere. Her final recommendation involves in-house training (especially to develop planners). She writes:

Career Move for Customer Service Employees? One company was having good experience in training talented customer service representatives to be planners. They were investing in training and working on teaching long-term employees new skills. I find this to be an interesting idea. Senior customer service representatives know the customers and the supply chain constraints.”

One of the most important messages to be drawn from this post is that, if you are a student looking for a promising career field, supply chain management is worth checking out. If I were just entering a course of study, I would make sure that, in addition to traditional supply chain and logistics topics, I exposed myself to statistical analysis and big data techniques. “In a new Avanade survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said their employees need to develop new skills to translate big data into insights and business value.” [“Data Is Useless Without the Skills to Analyze It,” by Jeanne Harris, Harvard Business Review, 13 September 2012] I believe that big data will drive most future business processes and that employees will need to know how best to use it if they want to continue to advance in their careers. Almost every survey about jobs with a bright future includes statisticians and data miners (see yesterday’s post entitled Future Jobs: The Times They are a Changin’.

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