Special Report: Leveraging the value of supply chain education

With interest in supply chain education at an all-time high, now is the time to use it to expand your own team’s skills, knowledge, and capabilities

By Bridget McCrea, Contributing Editor
January 01, 2014

It’s no secret that organizations are paying more attention to their supply chains lately. Whether their goal is to minimize risk, improve customer service, enhance visibility, gain competitive advantage, or all of the above, companies are increasingly turning to their supply chains for answers. A logical offshoot of this trend is an uptick in supply chain education. For without the right mix of fundamentals and hands-on experience, how can supply chain managers and their teams be expected to keep up with this newfound interest in what was once their “little corner” of the world?

Calling supply chain management the “Hot New MBA,” a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that more schools are ramping up their programs and adding majors and concentrations to meet employer demand for such options. And because program graduates are in big demand right now, WSJ says salaries for these jobs range from the mid-50s and up into the six-figure range, depending on education and experience.

The salaries associated with supply chain careers are impressive, for sure, but the path from the classroom to the paycheck isn’t always well paved or navigable. According to a new APQC survey, skills gaps can get in the way of individual achievement and corporate goals.

“Despite the attention given to the need for talent development and management in the supply chain,” the APQC states, “there are still unanswered questions about whether graduates with supply chain degrees are adequately prepared for jobs within the profession and whether organizations are actively seeking employees with these degrees.”

In some cases, the skills gap exists because companies have yet to set up supply chain talent development programs to support new hires. In its survey of 167 supply chain professionals across 40 industries, for example, APQC found that new supply chain hires are often only somewhat prepared for the jobs they will be doing. And while organizations recognize the need for talent management programs directed at supply chain staff, survey respondents were evenly split on whether their organizations have formal supply chain talent management programs.

When conducting its survey, APQC also found that their potential employers view recent job seekers in the field as only somewhat well prepared for their job duties. “This may be a motivation behind many of the respondents’ organizations,” the group states, “considering supply chain talent management to be a top priority.” Some organizations are taking a more proactive approach toward developing supply chain talent coming from university programs, according to APQC, which found that most organizations offer internship opportunities and 43 percent work with universities to develop supply chain management curricula.

Public, customized, and hybrid
At Pennsylvania State University, John Langley Jr., Ph.D., says he’s seeing strong interest in supply chain education reinforced by industry certifications and certificates. The latter often serve as “tangible evidence” that a format effort was put out to enhance one’s education, says Langley. Concurrently, he says more organizations are sending employees to schools like Penn State to attend either public, customized, or hybrid educational programs. At press time, for example, Langley was kicking off a three-day hybrid course for a particular company that was part-traditional learning and part-tailored to the company’s specific business.

When it comes to addressing talent gaps on a current supply chain team, Langley says the hybrid educational approach works particularly well. Some courses are designed to communicate basic information and knowledge (especially to those individuals who may lack formal supply chain education) while other aspects hit on supply chain skills that can be applied on the job (such as how to achieve supply chain transformation within an organization).

“If you are managing inventory, there are tried and true ways to manage that inventory,” Langley points out. “If you don’t know those ways you won’t be useful as an inventory manager, plain and simple.” Once an employee attains those operational skills, Langley says he or she can then play a larger role on the strategic side of supply chain management (i.e., direction setting and visioning). Ultimately, he says the companies that fill in the talent gaps on the supply chain side are those that make the commitment to ongoing education and consider that education “vital to their corporate cultures.”

Assessing the options
In 1997, Nick Vyas made the jump from industrial engineer to supply chain professional. He spent the next 16 years developing his own educational foundation and network within the supply chain field. It was a luxurious timeline that most professionals simply can’t afford to work on in today’s business world. “The speed of change is very fast right now,” says Vyas, senior program administrator for global supply chain management at the University of Southern California. “The professionals with the skills and the training are at an advantage and able to differentiate themselves from the rest.”

Achieving that goal requires a good balance between practical and theoretic knowledge, says Vyas, who points to certifications as a good option for a front-line supervisor or entry-level manager who lacks a structural education background. “As that person starts to climb the corporate ladder,” says Vyas, “that’s where an advanced degree and additional education will come into play.” A master’s degree in supply chain, for example, helps position graduates to become future vertical leaders, department heads, or organizational leaders. “If that’s the plan, then spending the time to get that master’s degree will definitely pay off,” says Vyas.

Supply chain managers looking to get their teams up to speed while filling in talent gaps should also consider education that incorporates—or, focuses on—global supply chains. With today’s supply chains reaching around the world, the professional who can think outside of the traditional domestic borders and solve problems related to foreign trade, distribution, and logistics has become increasingly valuable for organizations. “Having that understanding of the global perspective, and a related network of contacts and resources,” Vyas points out, “allows the individual to tap into many of the possibilities that are not available to those who lack this exposure.”

Brown bags and job shadowing
Getting a team up to speed and ready to tackle the new supply chain realities should start with a skills gap assessment. The Institute for Supply Chain Management, for example, uses a gap analysis tool to figure out exactly where employee education and/or skills are falling short—rather than relying on a manager’s assessment of the problem. “In many cases, the gap that the manager identifies is just a symptom of a larger, underlying problem,” says Mary Lue Peck, ISM’s managing director. What may look like an issue with negotiating and contracts, for example, may actually be traced back to serious gaps in analytical and financial skills.

Once those gaps are accurately assessed, Peck says supply chain managers can use on-the-job training methods like mentoring and job shadowing (when someone works with another employee to learn a new skill, get hands-on knowledge of a different job role, etc.) to begin effectively addressing those issues. In many cases, these collaborative training techniques are a two-way street when it comes to results. “The newer employees can learn from the more experienced worker,” says Peck, “and the latter can learned about technology, social media, and other ‘newer’ innovations from the mentee.”

The human bonds that form as a result of these interactions can be invaluable according to Peck, who recently worked with a company that was putting several of its supply chain employees through the group’s Certified Professional in Supply Management (CPSM) certification program. Using brown bag lunch meetings, study groups, and the related courseware, the team worked together to prepare for the certification. “They really bonded and, in this particular case, the employer’s return on investment (ROI) was covered by the retention rate,” says Peck. “They’re now pushing the strategy out to a larger group because it makes education fun and engaging.”

Enhancing learning capacity
To supply chain managers who understand the value of ongoing education for their team members, but who aren’t sure about the best way to approach it, Peck says it pays to take a holistic view at the process. Instead of randomly sending employees out to different courses and certification programs that may or may not yield a return, for example, consider where the gaps are in both quantitative and qualitative skills and then work to fill in those chasms with pertinent, quality educational opportunities.

During this process, Michele Ralston, associate director of open enrollment at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis, says companies should consider all modes of learning. With distance education gaining more ground every year, peer mentoring and tutoring still proving its effectiveness, and full-blown college programs proliferating, there’s literally no end to the number of options that are at your fingertips.

“The traditional classroom is certainly important, but the value of non-degree study and certificate programs is very high and the return on investment can be very quick,” Ralston says. “Programs like the one day or five day certificates and seminars can really bring immediate value back to the learning capacity and help supply chain managers hone their teams for success.”


About the Author

Bridget McCrea
Contributing Editor

Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected]