Winding a Way Through Supply Chain Education
Leading professors provide a map for navigating the labyrinth of post-pandemic supply chain education.
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The global disruption caused by the pandemic brought into sharp focus the importance of reliable supply chains and shed light on the growing need to advance the reach of supply chain education in colleges and university programs. How has the pandemic shaped, and in some cases reshaped, these programs?
To find out, Inbound Logistics invited leading educators Dr. Haitao Li of the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Professor Scott Grawe of Iowa State University; and Professor Joel Sutherland of the University of San Diego School of Business to participate in a special podcast. Here are some highlights of that conversation.
IL: In what ways has interest in supply chain and logistics careers increased since the pandemic?
Dr. Haitao Li, Professor and Chair of the Supply Chain & Analytics Department, University of Missouri-St. Louis: 2020 was an unprecedented year, but the good news for the supply chain sector was that people got to see a vivid picture and living story of the importance of supply chain and logistics.
Enrollment for masters programs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has increased significantly, while the breadth of industry interest has spanned beyond the traditional manufacturing sector to the likes of healthcare and agriculture.
Professor Scott Grawe, Chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management, Iowa State University: One silver lining of this pandemic is that we don't have to explain what the supply chain is to prospective students. We used to call supply chain management a discovery major, where students don't know anything about it until they get into college. But now people develop an understanding much earlier on and proactively look for supply chain courses. That has been encouraging.
Professor Joel Sutherland, Managing Director and Professor of Practice, Supply Chain Management Institute, University of San Diego School of Business: As someone who earned an undergraduate degree in logistics management, it was difficult to explain what that meant. People used to say, "oh, linguistics—right, that's the study of language."
In the 1980s, logistics evolved into supply chain management, which was even more complex and difficult to understand. But we've seen a dramatic increase in the usage of the term, and there has been a shift from push to pull: Instead of shouting to private industry about our students, they now come to us. It has even been said that the demand for supply chain talent is now roughly six times greater than the supply.
IL: How are companies supporting logistics and supply chain education initiatives today, and what are their return-on-investment expectations?
Grawe: At Iowa State, we have a supply chain forum where companies formally become part of our program. One of the main reasons they engage with us in that capacity is to gain access to talent. Through the forum, we can offer live cases to students. For example, we take a retail store in the United States and work backward through distribution centers, visiting ports, going overseas, and letting students see it all firsthand.
Companies benefit because they gain an opportunity to see how the students engage with their supply chain operations, and informally evaluate them. It also does wonders for their brand awareness. Where these companies may have struggled in the past to hire high-quality supply chain talent, they now have students lining up at their doors after hearing about the great opportunities on offer.
Sutherland: Many more universities want to bring industry players on campus, as it's important to connect academia—students and faculties—with the industry.
The question of return on investment is an interesting one. There's not a clear ROI, but if you consider just the challenges companies have in finding the best talent, these partnerships with universities provide them with early access to students. That is the real differentiator and ROI for a company.
Dr. Li: The University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) has an active and close working relationship with our department advisory board, which consists of 17 executives from major local companies and not-for-profit organizations. They support a number of student engagement activities such as our student mentorship and speaker program. We've also been successful with company-sponsored research projects.
The value that companies get through such collaboration is often intangible and hard to measure. But their investments—in time, money, or effort—deliver a lot in return.
IL: How can a solid commitment to supply chain education help companies retain and recruit talent?
Sutherland: Beyond our dedicated supply chain management careers fair, we conduct an industry survey every three years that asks a simple question: What are the skills that are required in supply chain talent? The interesting thing is that there is almost always a meaningful change in the attributes companies are looking for.
Soft skills remain consistent, but where there has been a continual technological revolution, we work with our industry partners to understand the changing needs and skill gaps and adjust the curriculum accordingly.
Grawe: First, a commitment to education allows companies to have influence on the curriculum, as most universities are open to hearing what skills are needed.
Second, companies can continue to offer their employees education opportunities. When they make such a commitment, employees recognize that the company has a desire to continue expanding their knowledge and expertise, and that will help retain talent.
Dr. Li: I want to emphasize the importance of the career path from the company perspective. It's crucial for companies to proactively continue education efforts to retain their top talent. Some companies subsidize their employees through degree programs, but equally there are flexible certifications that can be tailored to the specific needs of a particular organization or industry.
IL: What encouragement would you offer companies considering renewing their commitment to education?
Grawe: Start small. Listen to your employees, figure out the ways in which they want to develop, and make sure you're supporting them in getting plugged in with the right industry groups. Not all companies can hire a slew of supply chain majors and graduates right out of the gate. Some might have employees from diverse backgrounds, and a company might want to offer a half-day Supply Chain 101 course so everyone has the same foundational understanding.
There doesn't have to be a grand plan to support education—companies can take small steps in that direction.
Dr. Li: It has been a tough year for many industries and companies, but my advice for company leadership is to realize that this is the time to make better, even more prudent, business decisions for supply chain operations. I've seen a pharmaceutical company, for example, that has been proactive during the past year in coping with potential generic drug shortages and able to avoid disruption.
It's worth thinking about the long term as well as the short term. The pandemic and its associated challenges will not exist forever, and any small investment in the education of employees will have significant value in the long run.
Sutherland: The companies recruiting from our university find there is an increased value in supply chain talent. They are applying more resources because they feel this pool of talent can solve their ongoing problems.
IL: What role does supply chain management education today play in future supply chain innovation and enterprise transformation?
Sutherland: Supply chain innovation is different from product innovation in that it's about processes. It's almost always incremental, with small steps resulting in big changes over time.
Two key areas are important to an organization's supply chain innovation goals. First, the talent must understand what an end-to-end supply chain is, from procurement to operations to logistics. They must recognize that the actions they take in procurement, for example, have downstream effects in other areas.
Second, they want the talent to know how a company makes a profit. Logistics has always been about reducing costs, but now it's also about creating customer value that will generate more revenue, while at the same time reducing or maintaining cost structures so that margins are increased.
Dr. Li: Our profession has a bright future thanks to the fast and continuing growth of technology. Many companies nowadays are talking about digital transformation, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that we have so much data available, perhaps too much. How can we use it? How can we transform it to provide insightful and effective decision support?
Gartner Research coined the term "citizen data scientist" to describe the type of graduate who has training in both supply chain and analytics, which can bridge the gap between a pure data scientist and a supply chain professional.
Grawe: Supply chain majors are trained to think about other stakeholders, which provides the opportunity to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems. The small, incremental steps can be some of the greatest innovations because they fly under the radar. New product innovations usually come with a lot of fanfare and marketing, but subtle improvements can create significant competitive advantages that are completely blind to the market.
From a firm's standpoint, many supply chain programs provide collaborative hubs that offer insights into other companies. Organizations can learn from one another about how they approach things differently.
IL: Has this new approach to education addressed cultural shifts such as the Amazon effect, Internet of Things, and the changes brought about by the pandemic, such as the widespread use of video calls?
Dr. Li: We've had to make sure our curriculum and course offerings are up to date. We've recently begun to offer a new software class that gives students hands-on experience in working on real-world projects, using real-world data, to better facilitate the teaching and understanding of supply chain concepts.
Another trend is the growing need for flexible course offerings. COVID-19 accelerated this process. We now have online and hybrid classes in addition to traditional in-class formats.
Sutherland: People are getting burned out by the Zoom effect, but I agree that there will be more of a hybrid environment in the future. In our most recent virtual forum, we drew people from more than 30 different countries around the world, and I believe this will transcend to how we deliver course content in the future.
Technology has historically been a struggle in this profession, but for the first time I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. We have all this new technology that will transform how we can visualize the market, manage and collect data, and start sharing information to break down industry silos.
Grawe: About six months into the pandemic, one of our advisory companies began to look at students' ability to participate in digital spheres—such as Microsoft Teams meetings—as a measurable skill.
These technologies open doors to regular communication with supply chain partners across the globe, and
I believe that there will be a resurgence in soft communication skills as a
IL: What advice would you give to students looking to enter the workforce, and to current professionals seeking to expand their professional horizons?
Grawe: Network. From a student perspective, have conversations with your professors—you'd be amazed at the connections they have. We talk to companies and learn a lot through the research that we're conducting, so students can better understand industries and what they want to do through establishing those relationships.
One of the things that drives me nuts is when people say, "When this pandemic is over, I'm going to do xyz." The pandemic is not an excuse for waiting or delaying, and now is as good a time as any. Supply chains run because of relationships.
Sutherland: It starts with networking. I remember when my professor at the University of Southern California said I should join the National Council of Physical Distribution Management, which has since become the Council for Supply Chain Management Professionals.
Because I've since been a part of this association, I've always had a network. Many people in our field may go through six or eight job changes during their career, and a lot of times that's a step up. Get involved in networking and associations, not only as a student but also throughout your professional career, and continue to learn.
Equally, challenge your boss to give you responsibilities in different areas. It's up to the company to provide employees with a clear career path if they want to retain you over time, but it's up to you to be in control of that path as well.
Dr. Li: Know your interests and strengths. Supply chain management is such a broad umbrella, with functional areas ranging from procurement to operations, logistics and transportation. Understanding your expertise will allow you to better maximize your potential.
Take time to think—is your strength in qualitative thinking and reasoning, or quantitative, meticulous analytics? That's my advice. n
Tune in to IL's podcast: What is the State of Supply Chain Education Today? for more information on the supply chain education programs offered by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Iowa State University, and the University of San Diego School of Business Supply Chain Management Institute.