Priming the Pipeline for the Next Generation of Supply Chain Professionals

March 28, 2011
Because of an increasingly collaborative environment, interpersonal skills and leadership have become highly desirable for companies looking for supply chain professionals.

Despite global economic challenges and a slow road to recovery on a broad scale, we haven't seen any decrease in the demand for top-tier talent in the area of supply chain management. In fact, in many ways, economic factors have accelerated the pace at which supply chain continues to gain more attention from corporations and senior management. The strategic aspect of supply chain as a critical part of an organization, as well as a function that can present significant cost savings, has caused the value associated with talented supply chain professionals to skyrocket.

Recent dialogues on the supply chain for supply chain talent have focused on the gap between talent demand and talent supply. A disconnect -- if not a gap -- indeed exists, and a significant contributor to that disconnect is the discrepancy between desired skills and the skills required to "hit the ground running" for the entry-level positions that students are recruited to fill. This is particularly true for undergraduates, but also applies to graduate students, including MBAs.

I don't know if we in academia are suppliers of talent (our students) to organizations, or if organizations are suppliers of positions for our students in academia. Whichever the direction, all of the research on buyer-supplier relationships indicates collaboration is the key to value creation.

Collaboration can help mitigate the cycle-time challenge in academia. While individual faculty members regularly make incremental changes to their courses with new examples, new textbooks and new research findings, the process to make disruptive, official changes to the curriculum can take up to 18 months. On top of that, students take four years or more to graduate, including two years to complete the major. These characteristics make demand planning for supply chain graduates from the university even more important, another reason for collaboration.

Our challenge is to deliver an educational experience that provides the broad education expected of university graduates; an understanding of business and supply chain management, in general; and the skills and tools needed to perform the first day at an entry-level job. This, too, requires collaboration to establish what organizations expect a university education to provide and what additional education the organization will provide.

Now more than ever, high-demand supply chain positions carry a greater expectation for professionals entering the field. In turn, preparation steps -- both in higher education and in on-the-job training -- have had to adjust to ensure the next generation of supply chain leaders will be ready to bring more to the table than ever before.

New Skill Sets Focused on Strategy in the Supply Chain

  • The value chain in today's business environment is notably different than it has been in the past. It is more globally driven than ever before; it requires sustainability as a major objective, and it is integrated with, and increasingly enabled by, technology.
  • As a strategic aspect of a company, the supply chain function is more collaborative and deals with far more elements of the internal workings of the business.

Cross-Functionality is Key for Today's Companies

  • Supply chain professionals need to understand the basics of business regardless of what function they are going into because it helps them see a larger picture of the value chain.
  • Because of an increasingly collaborative environment, interpersonal skills and leadership have become highly desirable for companies looking for supply chain professionals.
  • Gone are the days when logistics folks were judged on more "hard skills" like mathematics and technical proficiencies. Today's supply chain executives need to have so-called "soft skills" like the ability to manage different types of employees and personalities and navigate problem-solving across departments.

On-the-Ground Approaches to Better Preparation

  • At many leading supply chain programs across the country, faculty and staff are seeing a shift in the type of demand for their students. Companies don't just want students that can drive cost savings. They also want students who can innovate to create additional cost efficiency and provide added value for the company.
  • To help educate students that will be prepared to lead supply chain departments in global businesses from front-to-back, a great deal of changes to the business school curriculum are made in highly-ranked supply chain programs at places like the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. More leadership coursework is required; foundation courses across all disciplines are part of the curriculum, and a stronger emphasis is put on international business.
  • A focus on technical training has become far more engrained in business school programs for supply chain management because industry-specific tools play such a significant and immediate role.

Staying Up to Date on Company Needs

  • In many ways, top programs are set apart from the pack by having a curriculum and faculty in touch and in tune with the evolving needs of companies that will be hiring their students. It's critical that a good supply chain program be connected to and draw upon resources from partner organizations whenever possible.

We operationalize collaboration in a variety of ways. For our MBA curriculum at the W. P. Carey School of Business, we conduct a corporate curriculum review annually where supply chain professionals from both companies that have previously recruited our students and from companies who have not yet recruited our students are gathered to hear what we are doing and what we have plans to change. We invite participants to comment in support of our plans or to suggest modifications to our plans.

For our undergraduate curriculum, twice a year during the recruiting seasons we hold "Lunch & Learn" sessions during which we present curriculum models and planned changes and again ask for validating comments and suggestions for modifications to our plans.

We also hold regular meetings in partnership with our student organizations to solicit input on our current curriculum. More importantly, we communicate with our alumni and our students returning from internships regarding what materials they were exposed to in their courses that were most relevant and what topics they would like to have known about before they started their jobs or internships. Of course, we are ever-cognizant of what programs at other universities are doing, too.

Collaboration for our custom corporate education programs occurs during curriculum design and is consequently much more effective in matching specific needs with educational outcomes. Collaboration is the key. With input from our stakeholders, we construct our curricula to provide an understanding of business in the set of core courses required of every business major. Then, in the supply chain major curriculum, we provide students with opportunities to learn tools and skills in each of the functional areas of the supply chain and opportunities to learn why an integrated view of the entire supply chain is important to add real value. We are very clear that success in their first jobs will depend on their mastery of functional skills, but also that their understanding of the linkages among all of the components of the supply chain will allow them to add real value to the organization.

Industry/university collaborative efforts like the Supply Chain Talent Academic Initiative (SCTAI) to identify skills requirements and educational responsibilities of academia and industry provide the basis for improving the supply chain for supply chain talent. With collaborations like this, we will meet the ever-growing demand for qualified supply chain professionals.

Professor William Verdini is Supply Chain Management Department Chair, for the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

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