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ASCM Insights

Close the Supply Chain Skills Gap with Reskilling and Upskilling

By Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D

In our ever-changing world, we must be willing to adapt if we are to keep pace with new realities. As our environment evolves, so must the way we live, learn and work.

Industries evolve with technology, and that means the workforce needs to evolve as well. Supply chain is no exception. This field already has to contend with a number of technological and systematic advancements — and several more game changers are just over the horizon. Let’s look at a few of them:

  • Omnichannel distribution creates multiple interaction points for sellers and customers. It’s not just a store pickup or delivery world anymore. This increased complexity opens the door for even more consideration of artificial intelligence and robotic solutions.
  • Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, also continues to alter the supply-and-demand model. An increasing number of products now can be created on demand, eliminating the need for extensive stockpiles. It also can improve spare parts availability for certain products, increasing their lifespan.
  • The manufacturing landscape is becoming leaner, more effective and more dependent on cutting edge technology — and that’s without even considering the near-future promise of shared people and freight initiatives and autonomous vehicles. 

But in discussion of these various trends and advancements, one question remains the same: What about the workforce? What about the people? How do current supply chain employees factor into this leaner, smarter industry model? 

For starters, let’s consider some of the more traditional roles. Automated and semi-automated trucking systems still are a work in progress. Estimates vary on when we’ll actually see the likes of dedicated autonomous trucking lanes, but they certainly won’t pop up everywhere at once. Human drivers are still in hot demand, and we actually have a shortage of truckers and an aging trucking workforce to contend with. The same can be said for forklift operators. Many young people just entering the workforce may not be attracted to these positions. However, they’re still a vital part of the supply chain.  

Supply chain jobs in general are on the rise, and that includes a host of essential high-tech roles in data analysis, cloud solutions, supply chain planning and risk management. Supply chain employment is projected to grow in line with the national average of 9% over the course of the next decade. Tomorrow's skilled workers will have to leverage technologies like artificial intelligence, geographic information and immersive reality to ensure a functional supply chain.

For the current and emerging workforce, this creates two challenges: 

  1. Many young people entering the workforce hear the phrase supply chain and envision hard, physical labor or vehicular roles. Certainly, those roles exist, but now more than ever we have an exciting slate of jobs that defy such expectations. This is, of course, a messaging and recruitment challenge. For new, skilled hires, the ideal career approach may be to start off in operations before transitioning into technological or tactical roles.   
  2. There is a need for reskilling. No one wants to be replaced by a new machine or technology, and companies shouldn’t have to lose valued employees in the name of technological progress either. Forward-thinking companies are choosing to upskill and reskill existing employees, rather than depend on layoffs and new hires. Amazon recently announced that it will spend more than $700 million to train 100,000 employees for higher-skilled jobs. It’s a six-year undertaking in which the company plans to reskill workers through its Amazon Technical Academy, Machine Learning University, Amazon Web Services Training and Certification program, and other programs.

Whether you’re looking to reskill current, dedicated employees or the local talent pipeline, it all comes down to bridging the gap through effective training, education, support and placement. The tools already exist; it’s just a matter of making sure they’re properly leveraged throughout the supply chain field and within major supply chain–intensive companies. 

The supply chain is vital. People need delivered goods, and the supply chain employs a huge number of workers who make that happen. Although employment opportunities in this field will increase in line with the national average, the jobs themselves will change to include a variety of high-tech roles to meet the needs of a technologically evolving field. Digitalization and disruptive technologies, which affect all industries across the board, will only continue to force us to embrace change. Reskilling and upskilling programs are more than a mere generational necessity. They’re an essential step to ensure adaptability and sustainability.

Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D., is the dean of professional education at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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