Career Solutions: Working Smarter

Tags: Education & Careers

Earning a graduate degree while employed can be challenging. But for those who make the effort, the rewards can include greater job satisfaction, the potential for promotion, and a salary uptick. Thinking about going back to school while holding on to your job? These professionals will inspire you.

As supply chain management grows in importance, jobs in the field will continue to be in demand. Yet, some industry analysts say the sector is experiencing a shortage of executives.

A surprising number of professionals working in supply chain management do not hold logistics-related degrees, according to Irvin Varkonyi, marketing manager and adjunct faculty member of the transportation and logistics programs at the American Public University (APU) System.

Varkonyi does not suggest that the supply chain sector lacks educated individuals. Logistics professionals might have undergraduate degrees in industrial design or management, or master’s degrees in business administration or engineering. But the majority have not earned a degree in supply chain management or logistics.

That situation may change as supply chain professionals adapt to their changing roles. “Transportation and logistics has become a complicated sector,” Varkonyi says.

That complexity requires a workforce and management team responsive to constant change, skilled in the latest technology, and well-versed in best practices. For their own benefit, savvy companies encourage employees to continue their education.

And savvy employees take advantage of the opportunities that come along. If they are seeking a new job or promotion, it’s important to hone skills, acquire knowledge, and broaden perspective.

Fortunately for both businesses and individuals, colleges and universities are responding to market demands by offering a host of undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs specializing in logistics and supply chain management. Many have created online or on-site degree programs that synchronize with a working professional’s overloaded schedule. Still others have crafted programs that fill industry knowledge and skill gaps.

Positioned for Success

The University of San Diego developed its master of science degree in supply chain management (SCM) in response to private businesses looking for employees trained in strategic and big-picture thinking, as well as hands-on problem-solving and decision-making. The SCM degree program meshes online and face-to-face instruction with experiential learning in the workplace, according to Lauren Lukens, program director.

Because the experiential learning takes the form of an integrative project anchored in the student’s workplace, program applicants must have jobs. And their employers must be willing to partner with them in the integrative project, which allows students to apply classroom and textbook learning to a real, rather than a hypothetical, workplace challenge. The end result benefits both the student, who gains experience that can enhance career prospects, and the employer, who benefits from new ideas and solutions.

For their own benefit, savvy companies encourage employees to continue their education— and savvy students take advantage of opportunities.

To ensure that they position students for career success, many logistics and SCM programs maintain strong ties with industry to stay abreast of emerging challenges and deliver up-to-date knowledge.

At APU, for example, an industry advisory board helps curriculum developers devise programs that anticipate workplace challenges. Businesses indicate demand for people who can move and manage information as well as products, and understand the challenges associated with reverse logistics and green issues. As a result, APU may develop concentrations tailored to these topics.

Industry input also allows educators to gauge whether the instruction they provide withstands real-life tests. “We do a periodic review session with industry experts, which allows us to benchmark our programs’ effectiveness,” Lukens says.

Demand for logistics and supply chain management programs will only increase as profit-minded businesses look to cut costs and boost revenues. “The supply chain is where the money is, and where the efficiencies are,” she says.

And for the working professionals profiled on the following pages, the supply chain is also where opportunity resides. Read on to learn how they have enhanced their career prospects and aided their employers through advanced education.

Team Player

Tim Engstrom, Senior Director of Operations, Lawson Products

Undergraduate degree in transportation & distribution, Western Illinois University; Master’s degree in supply chain management, Elmhurst College

Working Smarter: Applied grad school reverse logistics studies to streamline Lawson’s returns processing and refunds from 45 days to seven days.

Just a few years ago, as a hard-working college graduate employed by a major manufacturer and distributor of paper products and office supplies, Tim Engstrom was eager to climb the corporate ladder.

He had an undergraduate degree in transportation and distribution from Western Illinois University and experience as a transportation analyst. He wanted to help his employer enhance its supply chain infrastructure.

“I applied for some jobs internally, but always lost out to applicants with MBAs,” he says. “I was frustrated.”

So frustrated that he contacted a former professor who had begun teaching at Chicago’s Elmhurst College, home to the city’s only graduate program in supply chain management. At the professor’s urging, Engstrom enrolled in the master’s program.

Today, advanced degree in hand, he proudly serves as the program’s success story. His image appears on advertisements in online publications such as The Washington Monthly, on Elmhurst’s Web site, and in the college’s marketing collateral.

In addition to bringing him some minor fame, the program also brought him the desired career results. Halfway through the 21-month, 22-course program, he began rising through the company ranks and moving into new areas, including supply chain strategy. In October 2010, he landed a new job at Lawson Products, where he now serves as senior director of operations, with responsibility for global transportation, Canadian operations, and the firm’s Illinois packaging center.

Engstrom attributes this career triumph to his degree and the professional experience it made possible. “The SCM program really opened my eyes,” he says, noting that it not only introduced him to “the whole supply chain gamut”— everything from purchasing and warehousing to forecasting and human resources issues— but also connected him with a community of professionals from different industries. They taught him almost as much as his textbooks and professors.

Elmhurst enrolls students in cohorts, meaning that “the group you start with you end with,” Engstrom explains. Initially, he thought he might tire of the same faces or miss out on the opportunity to meet new students with the advent of each new class.

But reality contradicted his expectations. “Being part of a cohort is like playing on a team,” he explains. “Going through all these classes at such a fast pace is sometimes frustrating or tiring, but your classmates cheer you on.”

What’s more, because cohort members come from different industries and hold a range of positions, they offer varying perspectives. Engstrom’s cohort included professionals from purchasing, freight brokering, warehousing, and sales, allowing him a glimpse of their challenges. Today, the cohort members keep in touch and continue to share insights.

Like many graduate programs in supply chain management, Elmhurst offers students the opportunity to complete a capstone project. For Engstrom, that project allowed him to collaborate with members of his cohort on an effort that yielded tangible savings for his employer.

At that time, the firm was hoping to expand market share by catering to home offices and small enterprises outside the central business districts— enterprises in suburban strip malls, for example. The effort was stymied by an unwieldy product return process.

Engstrom and his teammates applied their studies in reverse logistics to address the concerns. They learned that it typically took the firm 45 days to process returns and issue refunds. That timeframe may not have troubled larger corporate clients, but it was a dealbreaker for small and home-based businesses. Engstrom was able to streamline the process to a mere seven days.

“The practice is still in effect today,” he says. By reducing costs and preserving client relationships, the strategy Engstrom developed noticeably affected the firm’s bottom line.

Overcoming Fear

In addition to boosting his knowledge base and expanding his professional network, Engstrom’s return to the classroom enhanced his communication and presentation skills. He counts that accomplishment as key to his subsequent success.

“I used to be desperately afraid of public speaking,” he recalls. “But at the end of the program, I did the entire 45-minute capstone presentation by myself.”

He has also become comfortable interacting with managers, teammates, and external partners. Now that so many people rely on communicating via text messages and email, his ability to speak confidently and clearly makes Engstrom stand out in the workplace.

Thanks to Engstrom’s education, his employer hears his message loud and clear.

Living the Dream

Kevin Ryan, 747-400 Pilot, Atlas Air

Member of the Army Reserves; Online transportation and logistics master’s program, American Military University

Working Smarter: Understanding how transportation fits into the supply chain, how international regulations and policies affect global trade, and how security issues play out around the world helps him be a better pilot for Atlas Air.

As a child, Kevin Ryan entertained two aspirations: He wanted to be a policeman and a pilot.

As an adult, he lived both dreams, serving as a police officer for a decade and as a pilot for the Army and Army Reserves. Along the way, he developed a new dream: to be part of a cutting-edge organization focused on best practices and innovation.

To realize his dream, Ryan enrolled in an online transportation and logistics master’s program offered by the American Military University (AMU), a member of the American Public University System. He opted to enhance his studies with a concentration in security.

Throughout much of his time as an online student, Ryan was a reservist, serving tours of duty in Djibouti, northeast Africa; Iraq; and Afghanistan. At night, on weekends, and during any downtime that arose, he’d log on to his computer and, course by course, work his way toward earning a degree.

For Ryan, on the move and continents away from a brick-and-mortar institution, the AMU program offered an ideal path to additional education. It was also the credential he needed for career advancement.

In fact, he says, the degree helped him land his current position as a pilot for Atlas Air, an aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance freight operator headquartered in Purchase, N.Y. The company specializes in accommodating over-size, unusual, or sensitive cargo.

The firm’s market position attracts plenty of high-qualified applicants. To stand out in the pool, which includes any number of military pilots with extensive experience flying internationally, Ryan believed he needed expertise that extended well beyond the cockpit. He needed a better understanding of how the various transportation modes integrate into the supply chain, how international regulations and policies affect global trade, and how security issues play out around the world.

Ryan found AMU’s online experience suited more than just his ever-changing locations. It also suited his preference for self-pacing and self-motivation. With an online program, he explains, “you have the freedom of having a classroom anywhere you have a computer and an Internet connection.”

That freedom comes at a small price, but one Ryan found manageable: students don’t have the opportunity to connect in person with professors or classmates. AMU compensates for that disadvantage with e-mail exchanges, thorough critiques of papers and projects, and a social media presence that connects the entire AMU community, including alumni. Professors also host online discussion boards, allowing students to learn from each other.

“Students are given weekly reading assignments that require posting a response, then critiquing the postings of others,” Ryan explains. “Sometimes discussions get quite heated. The drawback is, you don’t have face-to-face contact.”

Without the chance to detect a smile or a furrowed brow, it can be difficult to interpret a particular posting. “You lose inflection and tone,” Ryan says, but ultimately the content outweighs presentation.

Ryan credits the AMU program with deepening his understanding of how Lean Six Sigma practices benefit manufacturing, how various transportation options integrate to make a resilient supply chain, and how a street protest in Libya or Egypt might ultimately affect a factory floor in Europe.

As Ryan sees it, that understanding makes him a better team player at Atlas, in part because it allows him to support processes whose operational benefits might not be immediately evident. It also allows him to anticipate company or industry responses to emerging events.

On a recent flight over Japan, for example, he looked down on the devastation caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It wasn’t hard to predict the resulting disruption to the automotive supply chain. Nor was it difficult to foresee the logistics challenges that would confront first responders and officials charged with rebuilding cities and businesses.

Ryan also credits his graduate education with enhancing his ability to identify the best solutions to problems. Through case studies and examinations of best practices, he learned to approach problems by putting himself in the position of the affected players. That gave him a new relish for problem-solving.

Today, he says, “If there is a better way to do things, I like to do it.”

On-the-Job ROI

Jose Munoz-Gonzalez, Vice President of Supply Chain and Operational Excellence, AMETEK, Programmable Power Division

Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering; Master’s degree in supply chain management, University of San Diego

Working Smarter: His required integrative project at the University of San Diego involved developing a program to work with key suppliers to improve products by reducing waste.

When Jose Munoz-Gonzalez first turned his talents toward supply chain management, it was because he wanted to work in an ever-changing area focused on constant improvement.

“Supply chain management attracted me because of the diverse opportunities it offers,” Munoz-Gonzalez says.

To make the most of his options, Munoz-Gonzalez knew he had to improve his knowledge base, skill set, and understanding of how to motivate, manage, and communicate with employees, customers, and vendors. He needed to know, he recalls, “what a world-class operation would look like.

“I decided it was my responsibility to explore the possibilities and understand best practices,” he says.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and 19 years of experience in operations, factory and materials management, and quality control, the California-based Munoz-Gonzalez enrolled in the University of San Diego’s master’s program in supply chain management. To qualify for the program, which features an integrative experience based in the workplace, he needed the support of his employer, AMETEK Inc., a global manufacturer of electronic instruments and electromechanical devices.

The two-year program consists mostly of online courses, but each cohort gathers on campus for periodic residencies, where they get to know the faculty and cover topics best explored in the classroom, such as negotiation. Perhaps most important, the campus visits allow members of each cohort to connect with one another. These connections typically lead to relationships that last well beyond the program’s end.

Online courses are supplemented by podcasts and video tutorials that allow working professionals to absorb information while multitasking. And because discussion boards operate asynchronously, students can post responses to a topic or question whenever their schedules permit.

For Munoz-Gonzalez, the program proved immediately beneficial as he began learning about new tools and new applications for familiar tools. He was introduced to different “hard” tools for supply segmentation; discovered how to manage cross-functional teams; and learned to analyze the cost implications of various decisions.

And in his leadership classes, he honed the soft skills that are difficult to learn without expert advice and mentoring, exploring questions such as when to direct instead of coach an employee, and how to decide whether to work with subordinates to improve their skills or assign them to a different role.

Much of his learning had immediate applications on the job. “I started getting return on investment after three to four months,” he says.

His integrative project proved especially beneficial. Like other students in his cohort, Munoz-Gonzalez worked with his professors and employer to create a project that would complement his new learning while providing a tangible benefit to the company.

“The assignment involves defining a project that will deliver benefits to the company and allow the student to apply the tools and knowledge gained from the program,” he explains. His project involved working with vendors to identify the value and cost of products supplied to AMETEK. The project also enlisted the supplier in exploring different ways to modify those products with AMETEK’s needs in mind.

“We were able to work closely with some of our key suppliers to improve products by reducing waste,” Munoz-Gonzalez says.

By project’s end, Munoz-Gonzalez had earned valuable course credit, and AMETEK’s Programmable Power Division had improved its relationships with key suppliers. As a bonus, the suppliers could count themselves as beneficiaries, too. They came away from the experience with a more secure relationship with a major business partner. It was a win-win-win situation.

Munoz-Gonzalez not only learned valuable lessons from his own integrative project, but also from the challenges facing his fellow students. “The cohort system allows us to connect daily with teammates and share our experiences,” he says. “That further enriches the learning process.”

Building Relationships

Another project, a collaborative effort with three members of his cohort, examined how various companies approach supplier relationships. Each member of the cohort reported on how their employers managed these relationships, and the final paper offered proposals for improving them.

Because project participants came from all facets of manufacturing— everything from commercial/industrial to government/military— the project demonstrated how different company cultures result in varied processes and practices.

Upon completing his master’s degree in spring 2011, Munoz-Gonzalez found himself well on his way to realizing his vision of understanding and appreciating all the complexities of the supply chain. But because the supply chain is ever-changing, and needs to adapt daily to emerging situations, he’ll continue to learn, on the job and from members of his cohort.