Fast Forward: Educating the next generation of supply chain managers

Thursday, May 9, 2013

By Sara Pearson Specter for MHI Solutions

A qualified supply chain manager is hard to find. At least, that’s what Benoit Montreuil—the College Industry Council of Material Handling Education (CICMHE) liaison to the Board of Governors of MHI, professor at Québec’s Université Laval, and Canada research chair in enterprise engineering--is hearing from his industry sources. But, why?

“Although there are lots of college graduates in the material handling and supply chain fields, most undergraduate programs teach individual disciplines, not the big picture, holistic, broad views of how all the elements of a supply chain interact,” Montreuil explains.

Further, he notes, supply chain management is still a relatively new field. “Twenty years ago, nobody was called a ‘supply chain manager,’” he adds. “Positions were called ‘inventory manager,’ ‘supply manager,’ ‘operations manager,’ or ‘logistics manager.’ So the whole concept of a person having oversight of a full supply chain is still very new.”

Additionally, with baby boomers aging out of the workforce and retiring, “organizations are losing the personnel who have years of experience managing certain elements, or even the whole, of a supply chain,” says Kimberly Ellis, president of the College Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE) and an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. “They’re losing skills, capabilities and organizational knowledge--their brain trust—faster than they can find qualified people to fill those roles.”

Finding qualified people
So, where do companies find the next generation of employees qualified to fill these supply chain management positions?

Although business schools continue to be a key target for recruiting, more employers are turning to industrial engineering programs in hiring for these jobs, says Ellis. “We’ve seen an increase in companies coming to our program, as they’ve figured out that industrial and systems engineers have all the skills to manage a supply chain effectively, particularly those with business minors,” she said.

Jeffrey Smith, CICMHE past-president and professor of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn University’s College of Engineering, agrees.

“Although both business and engineering programs may cover similar topics that are applicable to supply chain, the difference between the two lies within the approach,” Smith explains.

To explain the divergent approaches taken by engineering and business schools, Smith cites the concept of variability: the impact of increasing complexity upon a system’s performance, such as how high inconsistencies in shipping time can cause problems for a supply chain as it struggles to keep up with demand.

“In an engineering program, students examine the technological side of variability. My students, for example, get into the mathematics and propagation of variation,” he says. “Whereas, in business school, students discuss the importance of variation, but don’t delve into the mathematics behind it.”

However, adds Smith, regardless of the degree possessed by candidate for a supply chain management position, it’s crucial to have an understanding of both systems and business.

“People who are at the top of the supply chain game clearly have an understanding of both--they’re not solely technologists, nor are they solely business people. That’s why you see a lot of industrial engineering undergraduates subsequently pursue a master of business administration (MBA),” he says.

Skill sets needed
Regardless of possessed degree, Ellis, Montreuil and Smith agree that a highly qualified supply chain manager has the following characteristics:

  • A transformative mindset. “Companies want go-getters who have not only mastered supply chain basics, but also possess the vision and the drive to help an organization transform its supply chain going forward to make it core strength,” explains Montreuil. “They want people who can make the link between business modeling and strategy, and who can use trends such as nearshoring, outsourcing, postponement and network inventory deployment to help a supply chain be both agile and resilient.”
  • A systems perspective. “You have to understand how all the components within a system interact, and how that interaction makes that system behave,” notes Smith. “If the focus is on a single manufacturing plant--to the exclusion of the shipping and receiving of raw materials, the storage of finished goods and interactions with customers--then the company as a whole is not going to be successful.” Further, supply chain managers “have to have problem solving and critical thinking skills that enable analysis of the complete system--all the inputs and outputs and the objectives--in order to solve problems, particularly unstructured ones,” says Ellis. “They have to be able to look at a system and see opportunities for continuous improvement.”
  • A global outlook. “Th e ability to transmit information and communicate anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat wasn’t heard of 10 years ago,” notes Smith. “A supply chain manager has to be able to harness that access to communication, data and the ability to get things from anywhere in the world in order to do their job. Plus, being able to interact with people in different cultures and different time zones is a must.”

Education programs support student, industry goals
Students in industrial engineering programs increasingly are attracted to supply chain as a career because they see the variety of opportunities presented--simply by the breadth of the field, says Ellis.

“Students also see that supply chain knowledge is held in increasingly higher importance by companies, who now use it as a competitive advantage,” she said. “They see the opportunity to make an impact within the field.”

Smith notes that today’s industrial engineering students have grown up in the same era as the supply chain evolution, so they readily accept its importance to business, as well as in daily life.

“As they grew up, students saw Walmart become the world’s largest retailer by leveraging the strength of its supply chain,” he says. “Likewise, Apple took control of their supply chain to manage all aspects of their production--shipping, lead times, products, due dates—and that’s allowed them to manage the demanding complexities associated with their iPhone and iPad products. And, they’re inspired to see that the CEO of Apple is an industrial engineer.”

Further, because they recognize the parallel needs of the industry to find qualified candidates and students to enhance their marketability, undergraduate programs are aligning some of their coursework to better meet those goals.

Montreuil’s program places a strong emphasis on supply chain simulation to give students as close to a real world experience as possible.

“We don’t want them to just discuss the challenges of supply chain management; we want them to practice it through simulations of a live supply chain,” he explains. “They work in groups and we throw challenges at them, such as a failed product whose actual demand doesn’t come close to forecasted demand, or the impact of delivery shortages on customer relationship management. We want them to have a valuable experience.”

Likewise, when Ellis teaches a class on production planning and inventory control, the material overlaps with the criteria for Certification in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) offered by The Association for Operations Management (APICS).

“I emphasize to students that at the end of my course they can take the test to earn this certificate, and that makes them potentially more valuable in the marketplace,” concludes Ellis.

About the author: Sara Pearson Specter has written articles and supplements for MODERN Materials Handling and Material Handling Product News as an Editor at Large since 2001. She owns her own marketing communications firm, Sara Specter, Marketing Mercenary LLC.