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Supply Chain Industry and Academia Partner to Captivate Young Minds

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It’s a troubling and frequently reported issue: The supply chain industry is facing a severe talent shortage in the coming years. In fact, a 2018 Gartner report found that 63% of the industry professionals surveyed cited “talent shortage” as their most pressing concern. A University of Maryland/DHL study supports this result, noting that global demand for supply chain professionals outpaces talent by 6 to 1. In particular, scarcity of employees with digital acumen is hindering growth and change within the modern landscape.

The causes are also well documented. Baby boomers, the employment backbone of the industry, are getting older and retiring, and younger generations aren’t entering the field at the same pace. One reason for this is that the industry is not well understood and lacks broad, mainstream recognition and appeal. Interestingly, supply chain has been making strides here of late, as a result of being in the limelight during much of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, that event also upended the world economy and decimated industry expectations. Supply chain professionals were forced to reevaluate each process they had in place — everything from how they make hiring decisions to what skills their employees should have.

How can the industry prevent this drought of talent? Rob van der Meulen, a contributor to Gartner, names three pillars for building a workforce for the next generation, which are

1. agile, collaborative leadership

2. continuous workforce transformation

3. innovative talent sourcing and development plans.

That’s where the academic solution comes in. While recruiting professionals out of other industries is an admirable goal, a far easier and more fruitful tactic is to recruit potential employees while they are still in school. Job fairs for graduating seniors are great, but don’t overlook the power of reaching students when they first enroll in college; better yet, recruit them before they even apply.

University leaders have learned that collaborating with businesses and industry professionals is a meaningful and productive method of catching students before they’ve already chosen their career paths. College professors and industry professionals are working together to create the type of curriculum that produces graduates in the field of supply chain who possess the right technical and soft skills to excel in the industry — and close that talent gap.

THE RECRUIT

Many professors in the field of supply chain are confident that they can keep students engaged in the curriculum once they begin; it’s such a far-reaching industry that affects many aspects of modern life. The problem, they agree, is getting students enrolled. Ideally, the industry starts introducing students to opportunities in the field from a young age. Celeste Ayers is a senior adjunct professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California, as well as a division sourcing and procurement manager for Parker Hannifin Corporation, Racor Division. She maintains that building awareness of career opportunities among high school, middle school or even elementary school students is key. “I think of my own children,” she says. “They have field trips to the police station or firehouse because those careers are accessible and visible in society. What about touring a manufacturing plant? Integrating supply chain STEM activities in the classroom? Introducing children to the concept of free trade and global supply chain concepts?”

Joe Walden, lecturer at the University of Kansas (KU) School of Business in Lawrence, Kansas, and assistant area director of analytics, information and operations management, outlines a direct program. KU hosts high school juniors and their parents for a college visit. There, they introduce the basics of supply chain and set up a mock classroom to demonstrate what students would be learning in the department. Then, the faculty discusses the promise of a career in the industry, including the placement rate for students upon college graduation; the different opportunities in the field; and the financial perks, such as signing bonuses and starting salaries for various entry-level positions. While these kinds of conversations interest students, they excite their parents even more. Having this type of insight into the potential career paths of their children is both comforting and compelling.

Says Ayers, “It is so important to start supply chain career awareness before students exit high school.  There is a great big world of opportunity as the future of competitive advantage moves from individual contributor organizations to supply chain versus supply chain competitive advantage.” 

SUPPLY CHAIN 101

Gary Beaudette, supply chain consultant and adjunct instructor at Brandman University in Irvine, California, and CEO of Beaudette Consulting, describes another method for getting students interested in the field: market it in a way that appeals to today’s trends. Some community colleges, for example, have enacted a consortium of entrepreneurship and innovation programs to teach students how to build their own businesses.

Beaudette points out that, in some respects, entrepreneurs are quintessential supply chain professionals. No matter what type of businesses they run, they must concern themselves with basics of the supply chain — from where they source their materials to the logistics of moving products from a distribution center to a warehouse. And the word “entrepreneur” is much more salient than “supply chain manager” to most people. A 2018 survey of 1,000 U.S. teens by Junior Achievement and Ernst & Young found that almost half (41%) were interested in becoming entrepreneurs. Owning a business is romanticized in American culture, whereas most young people don’t have even a basic understanding of the role of the supply chain in their lives.

One method Beaudette uses for integrating the concepts of supply chain into his entrepreneur workshops is simulations, such as the beer game — the decades-old, role-playing game commonly employed to teach the functionality of the supply chain by assigning students the task of producing and distributing beer. “I teach them supply chain without them knowing any of the verbiage yet,” Beaudette adds. From there, he explains how to make a supply chain work.

Walden uses a similar tactic to introduce supply chain to his students and encourage them to think about how the industry affects them personally. As one of the first homework assignments, he instructs students to pick out three things from their closets and track the supply chain from beginning to end. “Now they can start thinking, ‘Well this shirt came from Cambodia, the cotton had to come from somewhere, someone had to manufacture it and get it from Cambodia to the United States. It probably came by ship to the West Coast, had to get from the West Coast to a distribution center, the distribution center to a store or from a fulfillment center to my front door.’” Most young adults have probably never thought about where their clothing comes from; or at most, they’ve thought about the factory where it was made. Tracking a college sweatshirt from cotton field to front door delivery is an eye-opening experience that can solidify the concept of the supply chain and engage students in considering the many ways in which they could work in the industry.

HANDS-ON TRAINING

Although classroom time, from traditional lectures to small-group simulations, is vital for teaching students the principles of supply chain management, seeing supply chains in action is another important method for learning how they function. “Anything we can do to expose students to more concepts, the better,” Walden says. He works with local organizations, such as medical centers, to allow students to visit the business to see what they do. Witnessing a medical center’s supply chain in person is a useful tool to ground the concepts taught in the classroom. And after visiting several businesses, students can compare them with other distribution centers in the area to see how they differ, he notes.

In fact, Walden takes it even further with an annual study abroad program in Panama to watch and understand the businesses and supply chain operations connected to the canal. Students see and compare the shipping containers and distribution methods used at various ports.  “We can explain all the details in the classroom, but it’s much more relevant and easier to understand when seeing it in person.” He recalls standing at a port in Panama and students saying, “Wow, now I’ve got it.” After talking about theoretical concepts for several weeks in class, they’re seeing it “up close and personal.” 

MASTERING SOFT SKILLS

Both professors and practitioners agree that key soft skills are essential for any new member of the supply chain industry. Unfortunately, they are sometimes lacking in today's graduates. Without these necessary soft skills, new recruits in supply chain are less likely to succeed and stay in the industry for the long term. Beaudette names communication, teamwork and collaboration as the crucial proficiencies that students should be learning through hands-on experiences in the classroom.

Karen Smith, vice president of Global Supply Chain Operations at Kontoor, said in a Logility webinar that the “Achilles’ heel” of the new generation of talent is analytical thinking. The metrics and the algorithms are all there, but “it comes down to decision-making and storytelling and influencing stakeholders in the project.”

Ayers had the same experience: “One of the key skills that I have found that employees struggle with is the application of theoretical concepts. I try and stray from traditional research paper writing in my courses and focus on projects where the learner is challenged to put the concepts of the course into action.”

Walden suggests instructors modify curriculum to include metrics and calculations in the supply chain. So, as new employees, these graduates will be able to say to their bosses: Here’s what these numbers mean to our company. “Get students thinking, I have this formula for this forecasting technique — but what does it really mean?”

Finally, Ayers notes, “Through my managerial experience with professionals at different levels in their careers, I have found that the skills of self-reflection and goal setting are a challenge, so I incorporate these types of activities in my classroom whenever possible.” 

THE INDUSTRY-ACADEMIA THROUGH LINE

Many students enrolled in undergraduate education fear that their degrees won’t translate into future employment. Only 53% of college students feel very confident that their major field of study will lead to a good job, according to a 2017 Gallup-Strada poll. Even if they’re reassured by their counselors and professors about the viability of their education, it can be difficult to understand how the concepts learned in school apply to the real world. Ayers points out that universities have an obligation to “partner with industry to figure out what skills they are projecting to need in their business in the next two, five and 10 years” so that academic departments can adapt curriculum and course offerings.

Walden notes that the career center at his university regularly reaches out to businesses that recruit at the school and invites them to speak in the classroom. They also maintain a supply chain management board of advisers, for which they ask business leaders to counsel the board on what skillsets they need from students who are entering the industry; what competencies new graduates consistently lack; and what kinds of adjustments to the current curriculum they would recommend, including topics they’d like students to learn more about and what concepts are no longer relevant to the industry.

But companies should be doing their part, too. They have the opportunity to shape future employees before they even enter the workforce. The report “Unemployment Among Young Adults” by the Brookings Institution describes the ways in which different industries and employers — including educational institutions, governments, and philanthropic organizations — should be considering holistic solutions to the problem of hiring and retaining the talent of young adults in the workplace. “Employers should better define and predict their skill requirements and workforce needs for critical middle-skill occupations and invest in more effective strategies to recruit, assess and train for those skills.”

Gartner contributor Gloria Omale argues that building a diverse internship program is key for companies looking to expand their talent base. Not only can those interns bring immediate value to the organization, but their talent can be developed for the future — ideally at that same organization. And Ayers suggests that the same should be done through colleges and universities, not just with new graduates. “The industry should work to invest in schools at all levels to provide guidance and career pathways through internships or targeted hiring programs to incentivize participation in these occupations,” she said.

Karin Bursa, executive vice president of Logility, points out that industry leaders, too, are excited about incoming talent. “Generation X, Y and Z talent pools bring a new set of skills; they’re digital natives who embrace technology and automatically look for more efficiency,” she says. “And they’re helping employers be ever more productive.”

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE

One thing that may be scaring off college students, new graduates and professionals in other fields is the well-advertised threat of automation to jobs in the supply chain industry and beyond. However, most experts agree that automation is not a death knell to the industry; in fact, running complicated software is an entirely new job that factories, warehouses and distribution centers will require in the next few years. “Machines are made and controlled by people,” said Ayers. “So, even though the machine may be taking over a task, it still needs a person to build, program and maintain it. Those are the skills that need attention; that should be the opportunity to grow and continually learn.”

Walden agrees: “True competition is between supply chains. … Sometimes we get too concerned about automation and systems and forget about the people. We’re in the people business. People and automation go hand in hand.”

Taking this a step further, Bursa specifically notes that automation might be the perfect solution for preserving the “tribal knowledge” of the industry that is currently maintained by retiring baby boomers.

Although the qualifications employees need to stay relevant will continue to evolve, as new technologies are invented and adopted, processes change, and the world grows smaller, there will always be a need for young professionals to enter the field of supply chain. It’s more crucial than ever to show students how their work in the industry can affect their communities and the world at large. And it’s up to industry experts, universities and professors to show potential supply chain talent the wealth of opportunities supply chain presents.

About the Author

Holly Poulos Freelance Writer

Holly Poulos is a freelance writer. She may be contacted at hollybpoulos@gmail.com.

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