Career Solutions: Knowledge by Association

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Regardless of your title or experience level, getting involved in an industry association could be one of the best career moves you ever make.

For many people, membership in an industry organization can be instrumental to their professional development. But shippers, manufacturers or warehousing professionals who are new to the industry may not be aware of the advantages associated with membership or even what associations to join to expand their knowledge. Even logistics and supply chain veterans are often unaware of how membership in an industry association can benefit professional development.

Susan Rider is all too familiar with the lack of awareness many people exhibit when it comes to getting involved in associations and she's aiming to change that. As the owner of her own consulting business, Upton, Ky.-based Rider & Associates, and this year's president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), Rider meets people in the warehousing industry all the time.

"Whenever I visit DCs and warehouses I always ask people if they participate in WERC," says Rider. "The frequent answer I get is, 'Sure, I go to work every day.'"

Not a response this 15-year member is thrilled to hear, but Rider has become accustomed to educating people she meets about the benefits of membership and is excited to have the opportunity to get the word out. "My goal as president this year is to stop WERC from being the industry's best-kept secret," she says.

Take Control of Your Career

Whether you've been in the dark about the advantages of joining an association or just don't think you have the time to devote to meetings, you owe it to yourself to get enlightened.

By becoming a member of a professional organization, you gain the opportunity to open your mind to new ideas and solutions, says John Gentle, DLP, global leader of transportation affairs at Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning. Gentle is a member of the American Society of Transportation and Logistics (AST&L) and chairman of the highway committee for the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL).

"Being involved with your peers in the industry allows you to test your knowledge and experiences against the thoughts and feelings of others. You can walk away from a meeting with either an affirmation of your own beliefs or a new idea that completely changes your mind," he says.

Those who preach the benefits of involvement in associations tend to be professionals who see the importance of continuous learning, regardless of experience level or title.

And that learning takes more than just sitting in on educational sessions at the annual trade show or conference. "I've been to events and asked people, 'Did you get anything out of this meeting?'" says Gentle. "Many times people will answer, 'No, they didn't talk about what I wanted to hear.' When I inquire if they asked about the topic, the answer is always no."

Gentle sees this passive approach to learning as counterproductive. "Leagues and associations don't benefit you if you just act as a sponge," he says. "You have to participate by both listening and sharing your thoughts and opinions. Belonging to an association is a composite of these two factors."

Information Exchange

For those who do actively participate in associations, the benefits are obvious. "In my corporation," says Gentle, "we constantly look to transform the supply chain and provide customer service levels that are second to none. At meetings we exchange ideas with other companies who are struggling to meet the same challenges, and bring those concepts back to our staff."

"A lot of the things we do are not exclusive to our own company," adds Christopher Palabrica, CMP, CHMM, director of operations for Mays Chemical Company, Indianapolis, Ind., and a member of the Council on Safe Transportation of Hazardous Articles (COSTHA).

"We are all wrestling with the same issues. Being able to discuss them with other people in the industry to find out how they are handling them is a big bonus and a benchmarking tool for us," he says. Mays Chemical Company has been a member of COSTHA for some time and Palabrica has been the contact person for his company since 2002.

As an active member in the organization, Palabrica describes the advantages of membership as a two-way street. "You only get as much out of it as you put in," he says.

This mantra is one Palabrica can relate to firsthand. "At one meeting," he recalls, "we discussed how to go about training employees." After that meeting, his company modified its own training program to incorporate some of those new ideas. "We would never have thought of those ideas if we were not involved in the organization," says Palabrica.

He also notes the benefits an organization such as COSTHA can offer small companies like his own. "We joined COSTHA mainly because of the regulatory interpretations that come out of the association," he says. "We don't have a huge regulatory staff so having other viewpoints to interpret the regulations has been very valuable to us."

Getting a Return on Investment

But what about some hard ROI for those membership fees? Palabrica believes the cost of membership is insignificant compared to the benefits the association can offer a company.

"When COSTHA, along with a few other industry organizations, appealed the registration fees to the Department of Transportation (DOT)," he says, "it saved our company a lot of money. The DOT lowered its fee structure and that, in turn, lowered our registration costs."

"The ROI on your yearly dues is well worth it," agrees Rider. But sometimes getting upper management to see that fact is not so simple. "A lot of bosses don't realize how beneficial membership in an industry association can be," she says.

She notes that executives who have many distribution centers often cannot give individual attention to all their distribution managers. Getting involved in a professional organization, however, allows their employees to gain guidance and education in the field. "The organization acts as a knowledge center for the employees," says Rider. "It is well worth the investment in membership fees for that."

Just as the transportation and logistics industry continues to evolve, so do the industry associations that its professionals belong to. "WERC has changed in several ways from when I first became a member," says Rider.

"WERC has broadened its focus from a nuts-and-bolts approach to warehousing to a concentration on more strategic applications in an effort to evolve with changes in the industry," notes Rider.

But WERC is by no means the exception to the rule. The Council of Logistics Management (CLM) has gone through a slew of changes since its establishment in 1963. The professional association was originally founded as the National Council of Physical Distribution Management and is currently gearing up for another big change when it becomes the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) next January.

"The decision to become CSCMP was made for one reason—to meet the changing needs of our members and our profession," says Elijah Ray, president of CLM. The broader emphasis on the entire supply chain will allow the association to provide members with content that incorporates logistics, procurement, manufacturing, and sales and marketing functions.

Effective associations evolve to reflect the changing nature of their membership and member Rick Jackson, for one, is pleased with the changes he has seen so far from CLM. A member since 1986, Jackson is the executive vice president of logistics at Limited Brands Logistics Services, Columbus, Ohio, and has seen the association grow and transform since his first meeting 18 years ago.

The evolution of the content at the annual trade show is one aspect Jackson is particularly pleased with. "CLM has gone from just having breakout sessions to offering executive development sessions," he notes. The executive development sessions are dedicated to five different areas of logistics and allow members to sit in on a discussion for a four-hour period.

"This allows you to delve deep into one area of logistics you are particularly interested in," says Jackson. "The people leading the tracks are very knowledgeable so it offers attendees a great resource for information on current topics affecting the industry."

Keeping current on the issues shaping transportation and logistics—whether at trade shows, educational sessions, chapter meetings, or networking functions—is essential for all professionals, regardless of the level they are at in their career.

Getting Newbies Involved

But for younger professionals who are new to the industry, the importance of these face-to-face interactions is often overlooked, says Gentle.

"Bosses sometimes have a propensity to go to meetings and not allow younger members of the staff to attend. They figure they can just bring the information they acquire back to the office and share it with employees," he notes.

While a lot of times this is due to budget constraints, it does a disservice to younger employees. "They need to be out there seeing these real-world experiences and testing them against their own ideas," Gentle says.

Being an active learner is something Rider is also adamant about. "If your goal is to move up in this industry," she says, "you have to invest in your career and be a life-long learner."

That involves more than just collecting the association newsletter. By serving on committees and planning groups, and contributing your skills and talent to help the organization, you can gain a tremendous amount of education and insight into the profession, she notes.

"If you are good student, you can be successful," agrees Gentle. "You need to listen and ask the questions you believe form the basis of your theories, then test for the answers. If people want to pursue this profession, if they want to be good students, they will belong to industry associations."

For a list of industry associations, click here

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