Logistics Education: More Is Better

Tags: Education & Careers

Evolving to meet changing industry needs, logistics and supply chain education helps students hone their skills, gain a broader perspective, and bring bottom-line benefits to employers.

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The more you know, the more you can shine. That makes education especially crucial in today's tough economic climate. Whether you're grooming yourself for a new position or striving to stand out in your current job, further instruction in logistics or supply chain management may offer the edge you need. And if you're working to transform your supply chain operation into a powerful profit center, education for your team might make a critical difference.

"Every company is under pressure to improve supply chain performance," says Lei Lei, professor of supply chain management and marketing science, and director of the Center for Supply Chain Management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Newark, N.J. Institutions of higher learning nurture the talent that companies need to make those improvements.

They also give individuals myriad ways to distinguish themselves. "The more you learn, the more degrees and certifications you earn, the more doors open for networking opportunities to present themselves," says Donald Jacobson, president of Optimum Supply Chain Recruiters, Rutherford, N.J.

Schools and professional associations continually refine their offerings to keep pace with evolving industry needs. That's true of traditional bachelor's and master's degree programs, executive education programs, certification courses, and workshops that develop employee skill sets in specific areas.

Ready to boost your knowledge of the current state of logistics and supply chain education? Read on.

OUTSOURCING EDUCATION

When is the right time to go to school to study logistics or supply chain management? Just about any point in your career will do. The era when people finished high school or college, took a job, then learned all they needed to know at the workplace has come and gone.

Complex supply chains and a growing dependence on sophisticated information technology have rendered in-house training less attractive.

"Companies began to realize that not only could they not teach supply chain management on the job, they didn't have the time," says Marianne Venieris, executive director of the Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University, Long Beach.

Just as a firm might hire a third party to manufacture products or run a warehouse, companies increasingly turn to universities and professional organizations to teach employees the nuts and bolts of the supply chain.

Companies might pay higher-level employees to go through graduate school. For example, Theresa Foran, director of contract logistics strategy at DB Schenker in Atlanta, won a seat in Georgia Tech's Executive Masters in International Logistics and Supply Chain Strategy Program (EMIL-SCS) through a sponsorship competition in her business unit.

"Employees interested in being sponsored competed by writing an essay outlining why we would be the best choice—what benefits sponsorship would bring to the company and to our own professional development," she explains.

Besides providing financial support, DB Schenker allowed time for Foran to participate in the residential portions of the program, which took her not only to Georgia Tech's campus in Atlanta, but to Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

WORKERS' ED

Along with programs for executives, demand is heating up for courses geared to rank-and-file workers. "Companies are looking to increase warehouse workers' education levels," says Kathleen Hedland, director of education and research at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP).

Management wants those employees to understand how their work affects customers, and how it's linked to company activities at other locations. Education also helps such workers move up in the organization, Hedland adds.

Besides looking for courses that cover basic material, companies also are seeking courses tailored to their own business issues. Just because a firm outsources logistics education doesn't mean it wants a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

A continuing education program with open enrollment may draw students from across the industrial map, from aerospace to footwear to bulk chemicals.

"As a result, the knowledge will be very generic," says Ted Stank, Dove professor of logistics and associate dean for executive education at the College of Business Administration, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "That's why customized programs are growing in popularity."

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As universities and associations educate employees, they try to do more than simply teach supply chain principles. Students must know how to apply what they learn.

"A good idea that you can't implement successfully isn't helpful," explains John Langley, SCL professor of supply chain management, and director of the supply chain executive programs at Georgia Tech's H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

These days, executive education at Georgia Tech places greater emphasis on how to bring meaningful change to the supply chain, Langley says. Instructors spend more time on best practices, success stories, and pitfalls to avoid.

Education needs to provide a clear return on investment. "Companies are willing to send an employee for continuing education if they believe it will generate immediate benefits when the employee returns to work," says Stank.

With that in mind, many Knoxville executive education programs now require students to grapple with real-world supply chain challenges. An instructor introduces a concept, then asks students to apply it—in a case study or exercise—to challenges they're facing at their own work sites. In a few courses, students work with faculty mentors to develop solutions for their companies, sometimes aiming for specific ROI targets.

Syracuse University's Six Sigma-Black Belt Program, part of the online Supply Chain Executive Management Certificate program, boasts precise, tangible benefits to employers. All students taking this course must complete a project that yields money-saving improvements at their firms.

"This program has saved 30 companies more than $6 million," says Patrick Penfield, assistant professor of supply chain practice and director of management executive programs at the university's Whitman School of Management.

Bang for the buck also is a vital concern for companies that take advantage of workshops and online courses offered by CSCMP.

"Companies want their employees to gain practical information, and to really understand what they're learning," says Hedland. In particular, employers want CSCMP to test students' knowledge when the course ends.

VIDEOS, BLOGS, AND WEBCASTS

While they're answering demand for a clear return on investment, schools also are exploring new ways to teach. These innovations often feature technology.

The MBA program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, uses video to liberate students from in-class lectures, leaving more time for give-and-take.

"Teaching classes by lecturing in front of students is no longer relevant," says Thomas Speh, James E. Rees distinguished professor of distribution and senior director of the university's MBA programs. "Students learn better by being actively engaged."

Miami's program doesn't offer a supply chain concentration, but it does emphasize supply chain concerns throughout the curriculum, Speh says.

To help students take charge of their own learning, instructors in some courses at Miami professionally videotape their lectures. Students view those lectures online at their convenience, then come to class prepared to hold a discussion or work on a project.

"Many times, the professor just guides that process, rather than being the central figure," Speh says.

American Public University (APU), an online institution based in Charles Town, W. Va., uses message boards and other Web-based tools to provide the equivalent of classroom discussion for students who may be located anywhere in the world.

"I teach students who are in the military, based in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another works for a trucking company in Hawaii," says Irvin Varkonyi, adjunct professor and marketing manager for the university's Transportation and Logistics programs. "And they're all equal, because our online system allows individuals from around the world to learn together."

APU serves students who are active in or retired from the U.S. military and public safety organizations, but it's expanding to educate students who work in the private sector. Web-based technology that doesn't require students to convene in real time allows them to fit studies around their jobs and family obligations, Varkonyi says. It also lets students in time zones around the globe put their heads together in class discussions.

In a typical class, the professor posts assignments and questions to an online message board. Students complete the assigned readings, then use the message board to respond.

"We have created the kind of discussion that would result from a blog," Varkonyi says. "From that comes a tremendous learning experience."

The SCL Institute at Georgia Tech added a new kind of distance learning to its executive education offerings this year. In the past, the Institute offered its World-Class Logistics and Supply Chain Strategy course on campus and online. In February 2009, for the first time, the school also delivered the executive education course, taught by Edward Frazelle, as a four-day live webcast.

"The webcast is a full-function, HD-quality transmission of Dr. Frazelle's course," says Harvey Donaldson, managing director of the SCL Institute. "Other than the day not being as long, students have the full experience of sitting in a classroom."

Students e-mail questions to the professor, and he answers in real time.

NEW SUBJECT MATTER

Just as methods for delivering instruction are evolving, so are the subjects covered. One trend is to give students practical experience with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

"Three of our supply chain classes require students to do some outside work utilizing SAP," says Tony Inman, Ruston Building and Loan endowed professor of management in the Department of Management and Information Systems at Louisiana Tech University. "When I tell recruiters about that, their eyes light up."

Two elective courses in Rutgers' MBA program in Supply Chain and Marketing Sciences focus on SAP. "After students take these two courses, they can take the SAP Consultant's license exam," says Lei.

All students participating in Rutgers' undergraduate and graduate supply chain programs must earn at least one professional certificate. Along with SAP Consultant, students can choose to pursue any of four other certifications: Six Sigma Green Belt, Project Management Professional, Green Supply Chain Leadership, and Purchasing Professional.

Another important focus for supply chain education is global trade. For example: "What does it mean to work within Asia—in terms of culture, regulations, and business infrastructure?" asks Stank. In the executive MBA program at Knoxville, and in some longer certificate programs, students travel abroad to study those issues, and others.

In the same spirit, in 2011 the University of Tennessee will launch an executive MBA program with a focus on global supply chain management. "The program will be delivered with four global academic institution partners and offered on four continents over 15 months," Stank says.

Two partners are Central European University in Budapest and the Institute of Logistics and Supply Chain Management in Rio de Janeiro. As of January 2010, the university was still selecting partners in Western Europe and Asia.

Along with taking a broader view of the world, educational programs also need to take a broader view of the supply chain discipline. "Students need to learn about negotiation, corporate culture, sustainability, collaboration, leadership, and teamwork," says Speh. "We infuse those topics into many of our supply chain classes."

UNEXPECTED GAINS

By providing skills in specific areas, conveying new knowledge, and imparting a wider understanding of the supply chain, educational programs can reveal a host of new opportunities. That's true for students just embarking on careers, for front-line employees, and for high-level managers.

For Foran, one of the most valuable aspects of her graduate study was seeing the contrast between supply chains in the United States and abroad. The overseas experience built into her masters program made it easier to learn the ropes when DB Schenker promoted her in 2009. Her previous job as an account manager focused on the United States, while the new job covers all of the Americas.

Foran headed to grad school expecting to gain a new sense of confidence and credibility, and to learn fresh perspectives that would benefit DB Schenker's customers. "We could show them new—perhaps better—ways of operating," she says.

What she did not expect was how much she would gain from getting to know her fellow students. "I met a diverse range of classmates—both culturally and in experience levels," Foran says. She continues to network with them to this day.

Like Foran, many other students find that an educational program in logistics or supply chain management nets more benefits than expected going in. Institutions of higher learning are continually finding ways to help newcomers and veteran professionals alike grow and shine.