Online Education: Become a Supply Chain Leader…in Your Pajamas

Tags: Education & Careers, Logistics, Education, Supply Chain

A wide range of quality online education options lets you build your skill set and advance your career without leaving home – or thinking about the dress code.

When Christine Reinelt left the workforce temporarily to stay home with her two young children, she decided to use her break from paid employment to further her supply chain education. Her home in western New York isn't near an academic institution offering the instruction she wanted, so Reinelt searched for online education options. She was particularly interested in enrolling in a program that was well known among employers for providing solid supply chain education.

She found it at Pennsylvania State University, where she could ease back into the academic world by starting with the online graduate certificate in supply chain management program, a 12-credit hour program that feeds into the school's master in professional studies in supply chain management degree program.

After excelling in the program, Reinelt applied her certificate course credits to the master's program and continued on for a second year to earn a graduate degree. Now a business analyst at GE Transportation in Erie, Pennsylvania, through a contract with Paradigm Infotech Inc., Reinelt says the two-year certificate and masters program gave her the confidence she needed when she re-entered the job market after her children started school.

"I wasn't exposed to global markets in my previous position, but I am now at GE," Reinelt says. "The Penn State program prepared me for that."

Just as important are the unanticipated benefits she reaped through learning online.

"I didn't expect much teamwork and communication in an online learning environment, but I was wrong," Reinelt says. "All of it helped me become a more effective team member and collaborator. It also helped me develop analytical skills and become a more strategic thinker."

Degree Options

Online supply chain education is flourishing, with options ranging from one-off courses to certification programs to master's degrees. The best option for any individual depends on career goals.

Looking for a deep dive into a specific topic—for example, performance measures for supply chain management? Take one or two courses, and maybe earn a certificate—which isn't the same as obtaining certification. Want to boost your resume and make yourself more attractive to the job market? Enroll in a reputable certification program. Interested in moving into management? Invest in a master's degree where you will learn more about the role of multiple disciplines, from finance to marketing, in supply chain management. Each education type serves a different purpose.

Organizations including the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), and APICS, say their certification through online education options demonstrate subject knowledge and career commitment. The ISM website, for example, notes that its certification tells hiring companies that employees or job candidates have "mastered critical skills and can apply them to real-world situations to achieve superior outcomes."

"Certification says something about the people who earn it," says Nichole Mumford, director of education programs and marketing communication for CSCMP, a global association for supply chain management professionals. "Employers look for these kinds of credentials."

Pat Woods, founder of SupplyChainEducation.com, which offers online training for APICS and ISM certification exams, agrees. He compares certification to a master's degree: "With certification, students learn technology and gain knowledge that's directly applicable to their jobs. Sometimes a master's program can be higher level."

In some cases, he adds, employers place more value on certification than they do on a graduate degree.

Then there's the additional money that comes with certification: Average salaries for certified supply chain professionals were 10.3 percent higher than for those without certification, according to ISM's 2017 Salary Survey.

Employers funding higher education also appreciate that online certification training is less expensive than a graduate degree, Woods adds.

Still, when combined, all three of CSCMP's SCPro certifications demonstrate a mastery of knowledge and skills similar to a master's level program. "We compare it to preparing for a bar exam or CPA testing," Mumford says.

The certificate-followed-by-master's-degree hybrid program that Reinelt enrolled in serves both needs.

"We were surprised by the interest in the certificate program," says David Huff, director of online graduate programs in supply chain management and a professor at Penn State. "It lets those with some experience move forward without getting a master's degree.

"It's the foundation, so it's more accessible," he adds. "The last 18 credits are more rigorous."

More than half of certificate program students apply to the master's program.

Master's Programs Develop Leaders

One difference between online education for certifications and a master's degree is the leadership skills master's degree students develop.

"Any good supply chain master's program offers the teamwork that helps students develop leadership skills," says Huff. "For instance, our students learn how to work long distance and coordinate with teammates around the globe, all while working around their existing job commitments."

Penn State students, who also meet in person for four days during the summer after the first year, typically take one to two courses per semester and participate in three to five team projects—usually a case study—per course.

"They learn how to apply all this knowledge to their companies, and it gives them the skills to recognize opportunities and act on them," says Huff.

Tony Saracino, market development manager for the building solutions team at chemicals company BASF in northern California, is working toward an online MBA with a concentration in global supply chain management through the University of North Carolina (UNC). His coursework helps him understand other corporate functions and how they relate to his position and responsibilities.

"It's extremely important to understand other functions and speak their language, otherwise you risk making decisions in a vacuum and getting frustrated," he says.

He particularly enjoys UNC's live— "synchronous"—instruction because of the interaction with students and instructors and the opportunity to ask questions. "You can learn from someone who works at Boeing, 3M, or Procter & Gamble, who brings their own stories and experiences into the learning process," he says.

This interaction brings with it an unexpected skill: learning how to use online technology.

"When students enroll in a program like this, they're thinking more about content than technology, but from a process perspective, that's a big takeaway," says Wendell Gilland, associate professor of operations at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The program also requires a great deal of document sharing, video conferencing, and accessing material in a technology-focused learning management system. "Students also get comfortable being on camera," adds Saracino.

Working Through Problems

It's a similar experience at Indiana University (IU), which offers an online MBA in Supply Chain and Operations and a Master of Science in Global Supply Chain Management. The same faculty teaches both online and classroom courses, but online students have the benefit of learning how to work through problems that come naturally when collaborating with teammates in different time zones and in varying environments.

"Nobody is the boss in that situation—it's the optimal example of a matrix organization," says Carl Briggs, clinical professor, operations and decision technologies. "It's a group of people pushed close to the edge of what they can deliver and it's all virtual—you can't just walk across the hall and talk to your teammate. This gives these students a huge advantage in today's virtual global workplace."

Students are exposed to even more when they decide for themselves which technology tools to use, according to IU Senior Lecturer Scott Dobos, who went through the online Master of Science program while employed at Pratt & Whitney before joining the faculty.

"The students don't want our structure," he says. "They figure out what works best for them. That offers another benefit—team members introduce each other to new tools they're using in their workplaces."

The Personal Touch

While Dobos appreciated the flexibility of online education when he was an IU graduate degree student, he particularly enjoyed the one-week in-person immersion program that starts the masters programs. "Meeting the instructors and my peers in person was valuable," he notes.

As an instructor today, he has seen how improved technology, including video conferencing, helps provide a more personalized online experience for students than he had. "When I can see their video feed and the expressions on their faces, I'm better at figuring out what's going on and the experience they are having," he says.

While faculty and students alike stress the value and flexibility of online degree programs taught by renowned faculty members, some naysayers continue to question the quality.

When someone tells Saracino that an online degree can't be as good as an in-person MBA, he has a response ready: "At my job, I work with people all over the world. We meet on the phone and via videoconferences rather than flying to meet in person every time we need to connect—just like we do in my course work.

"My education is providing the skills I need to function in a global economy," he says. "I wouldn't have the same experience sitting in a classroom for two years."

And you can do it in your pajamas.