It’s good to see supply chain management getting more attention in higher education. Supply chains are both more complex and more important than ever before. We will see a major shift towards supply chain management as a core competency for senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies. Here are recommendations for students and new grads looking to get their careers off to the right start. In Part 2, I’ll be sharing recommendations for employers.
Colleges are Taking Notice
A few weeks ago, I saw an interesting article from Bloomberg making its rounds through many of the popular online supply chain forums. Provocatively titled, “Forget Finance. Supply-Chain Management Is the Pandemic Era’s Must-Have MBA Degree,” the article makes the case that supply chain degrees are more important than ever, even more important than the traditionally prestigious MBA. The article also shares some compelling stats to show that schools and students are taking interest with new courses being offered and some supply chain classes seeing enrollment jump nearly 50%.
The article’s a good read as supply chain is more important than ever as evidenced by many of the disruptions from the last 18 months. I also agree that we could use some fresh ideas in the industry. I’ve written about how long-standing supply chain principles have gotten too dogmatic for their own good.
Still, I’m not really sure who this article is meant for. Is it meant for students to encourage them to focus on supply chain? As the article says, jobs in supply chain will be aplenty for the foreseeable future. Or, is the article intended for university leaders, who should further promote supply chain so as to strengthen academic credentials in the sector? Or, perhaps, the article is targeting corporate executives, telling them that students and academics are recognizing the importance of supply chain management, and you should too?
Building a Career in Supply Chain Management
As a product of the rust belt, I stepped into my first factory well before I could shave. I had family and friends who’d spent 30 years working the lines for the likes of GM, Ford, GE, General Mills, and a run of other name brands. I always assumed I’d follow a similar path, and I looked forward to it. Building and moving the products that shaped our everyday lives seemed like a thrill to me.
I attended RIT and earned bachelors and masters degrees in Industrial Engineering. My first real jobs were in the supply chain teams for Moog, Toyota, and Boeing. And in the last 20 years, I’ve gone from supply chain engineer to supply chain investor to supply chain entrepreneur. The Bloomberg article made me reflect back on all of these experiences. From a student passionate about supply chain to an employer passionate about supply chain, I’m all-in on the future of supply chain management. It is the most underappreciated function in the enterprise. We will continue to see the best companies in the world differentiate themselves through world class supply chain management. In the leadership ranks, Tim Cook and Marry Barra won’t be the exceptions for long. We’ll see supply chain management be cemented as a core competency for CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies.
If Bloomberg simply teed up the topic, then in true supply chain fashion, I’ll be happy to make it actionable. So, for the students and employers out there, here are my recommendations to make the most of the current supply chain renaissance.
I’ll start with the students. For those students who’ve already chosen to start their careers in supply chain, here are three tips to start your careers on the right foot:
- 1. Build a strong base.
We talk about supply chain as though it’s one thing when really it’s a combination of several different disciplines: procurement, planning, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, operations, customer service. Your long-term success has much less to do with mastering each of these different disciplines as it has to do with developing transferable skill sets that can be applied in any environment. Those skill sets include critical thinking, public speaking, writing and presenting, and basic statistics. As a new grad, being able to jump into any situation, assess the problem, evaluate different options, and put together a compelling recommendation is 100x more impactful than knowing every nuance about shipping and tendering or sales & operational planning.
Here are some recommendations for building a strong base. It’s great that more universities are prioritizing supply chain management but avoid the trap of specializing too early. Take courses in things like supply chain risk and supply chain resiliency; you don’t need degrees in them. Instead, get your degree in disciplines that promote strong, foundational skills like math, engineering, and computer science. Learn to problem solve. Learn to be creative. Learn to communicate. That hip-naming degree might get you an easy internship, but you want to play for the long-term.
Next, get diverse, real-world experiences. If your school promotes internships, then work for multiple different companies in multiple different fields. It’s great if you love manufacturing, try logistics; try procurement; try planning. You’ll have 30 or 40 years to come back to manufacturing, but all those cross-functional experiences will make you a better, more well-rounded supply chain professional.
- 2. Choose the right team.
Supply chains have been around for a long time. There are a lot of people in the industry who would like to keep running their supply chains like they have for the last 30 years. That’s absolutely insane. This is a point from the Bloomberg article that I completely agree with:
“For some companies, though, getting lean ‘became a religion,’ says Penn State’s Linderman, and their orthodoxy became their undoing when the pandemic hit and there was no surplus stock to be found.
Supply chain can’t be thought of as a religion. Supply chain is akin to technology: constantly updating and evolving based on the convergence of the latest challenges, customer needs, and industry best practices.
Make sure you’re joining a team that thinks of supply chain like technology, not like religion. Simple questions, like “what changes have you made recently to take advantage of the latest technologies?” or “how do you think about innovation in supply chain?” or “what is our budget to try new tools to innovate and iterate?” can be very telling. On the other hand, if the team hasn’t made any real changes since COVID – other than working more overtime – or the supply chain is still running on a set of mainframe systems from the 1980s, then you already have your answer.
Advancements in supply chain management are going to propel society into the future. Make sure you’re joining a team that wants to be in the driver’s seat.
- 3. Act like an owner.
A lot of supply chain involves maintaining equilibrium: don’t have too much of this, don’t have too little of that. As a result, there are a lot of daily tasks that just have to get done, like procuring next quarter’s materials or updating inventory positions based on last week’s sales. There are also a lot of fires that have to be put out, such as suppliers that are missing deadlines or shipments that get delayed. All of these activities make it really easy to stay busy, but they make it difficult to implement more systematic, strategic improvements. Additionally, in a world where equilibrium is cherished, taking risks is often jeered. Hopefully, as we discussed in this blog’s second recommendation, you found yourself on the right team where change is actually celebrated, then it’s up to you to get your hands dirty.
Take ownership of a project that will create long-term benefits for the business. As a recent graduate, you’re especially susceptible to getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday work. That’s totally understandable. Start small. Within your narrow purview, what change could you make that would make your work 5% faster? What change might save the company $1,000 dollars? These types of improvements won’t get the attention of the CEO, but they should get the attention of your boss. More importantly, you’ll develop the ownership mindset. Taking on small projects outside your immediate scope of responsibility has several key benefits:
- A) You’ll develop the skill sets to identify an opportunity, come up with a plan, and then implement corrective actions
- B) You’ll build credibility with your boss to take on more impactful projects
- C) It’s more fun to be a difference-maker
Eventually, you’ll identify a $10k problem or $100k problem, and you’ll have the credibility with your boss to take on the challenge.
Supply chain management is complex, but don’t be intimated. Develop an ownership mentality, and rise above the day-to-day noise. Start by making small improvements, and you’ll see a world of potential opportunities open up. You’ll also have a lot more fun.
The Future is Bright
This is a great time to be in supply chain management. The best companies in the world – Apple, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson – have been rewarding and promoting supply chain excellency for a while now, and the rest of the world is about to follow. All of this bodes well for students and new graduates in the supply chain field. It bodes even better if they:
- 1. Build a strong base
- 2. Choose the right team, and
- 3. Act like an owner
Likewise for employers, it’s more important than ever for us to attract and develop top-talent to propel our supply chain functions forward. In my next blog, I’ll share the employer’s perspective with recommendations for doing just that.
For the companies. Similar tones:
- 1. Get supply chain the credit it deserves.
- 2. Be dynamic – adopt new thought processes, open to ideas
I’m happy to take the ball and run with it. I appreciate everything universities are doing to prioritize supply chain management. Professors and instructors are doing us all a great service by educating the world’s next supply chain leaders. However, my experiences make me much better suited to speak to students and employers.]