Supply Chain & Logistics Education: Ask the Professors — 2016 Edition

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

Faculty members from some of the nation's leading logistics education programs share their thoughts on how higher education is preparing tomorrow's professionals for the challenges ahead.

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Q: What are the latest trends in logistics education, and how does your program address them?

Gerard Burke, Georgia Southern University: A continuing trend is the challenge to attract students to pursue a career often perceived as humdrum. At Georgia Southern, we dispel this by illustrating the dynamic nature and variety of daily activities a supply chain manager encounters. We make explicit that every day is different when managing modern logistics services and transportation operations.

Experiential learning is another trend seen as valuable to both hiring companies and students. Georgia Southern supports this trend in several ways. First, we help advertise and coordinate internship opportunities for credit that can help students gain valuable experience and contacts while completing degree requirements. A second way we foster experiential learning is via an active student club, which works with faculty to organize information sessions delivered by hiring companies.

The club also organizes a roundtable event each semester that brings students and companies together to explore opportunities for internships and jobs. Other ways we support experiential learning include hosting external student case competitions, touring logistics facilities, and attending industry conferences.

Jimmy Chen, Bucknell University: One trend is emphasizing the endless possibility of creating new logistics models. Because market demand keeps changing, students' understanding of logistics should never be constrained by the common models they read in textbooks. For example, as online sales reach a record high, B2C service provider Jet.com uses some creative logistics concepts to bring value to customers.

At Bucknell, we typically have students conduct semester research projects on some common logistics models. They not only have to present the models to demonstrate their understanding, but they also have to relate the models to real companies.

Darren Prokop, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA): As in the academic world in general, there is a trend to online course delivery. All of our logistics and supply chain management programs incorporate online education to some extent. Currently, our occupational endorsement certificate in logistics and supply chain operations is completely online.

Another trend is learning how to deal with the avalanche of data that supply chain managers have at their fingertips. Data from barcodes, RFID tags, GPS systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT) mean that managers not only have to be good analysts, but they also have to be good at understanding the supply chain system instinctually. They must know which data deserves priority for a given problem.

Finally, globalization requires that logistics education build in a feeling for how international trade works. Beyond just an understanding of the nuts and bolts of importing and exporting, it is important that students understand the different business practices and cultures represented along today's global supply chains.

Schools need to emphasize the sheer complexity of all these factors. At the same time, great opportunities exist for students who can master the practice of business logistics. We find that a skill set in another discipline gives students a competitive advantage because it can enhance how they practice logistics and supply chain management. A background in computer science, operations research, psychology, accounting, marketing, or engineering can give students an analytical edge.

Peter Lukszys, University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison): In terms of different logistics applications, we see a lot of interest in humanitarian aid logistics and the impact of logistics strategies on climate change. On the more traditional side, evaluating where and how to position inventory to serve both online and brick-and-mortar retail customers is a big logistics issue. We have different tools to incorporate these trends in our program. Between classroom lectures, cases, and "applied" learning events with industry, UW-Madison makes sure students are exposed to it all.

Q: What do you hear from industry about its workforce needs, and how are you shaping curricula with these in mind?

Verda Blythe, UW-Madison: Industry needs students who understand analytics, especially with the volume of data coming in as more IoT devices go online. We added analytics classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels over the past two years. Logistics and supply chain also have a huge impact on the success of a new product launch, so we're adding that to our curriculum as well.

Prokop: Our business advisors actively hire UAA graduates in logistics and supply chain management. These companies want employees who can think, use their imaginations, and take initiative.

To this end, we make sure that our majors enhance their degree with well-chosen electives and that they are well rounded when they graduate. This means that they learn good communication skills through ample opportunities to write and present their work, do group work to build the skills of trust and cooperation so vital in supply chain management, and to be numerate—understand how to model an activity, and measure and analyze results.

We also require our bachelor's students to take an internship of at least 225 hours of work in their senior year. Logistics supervisors evaluate students just as they would regular employees; and instructors evaluate students on how they apply logistics theory and practice discussed in the classroom.

Many businesses use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. To ensure students are proficient in ERP environments, we built SAP-provided software into our classes.

Lukszys: Employers seek students with experience in the practical application of concepts. In one logistics class, we turn the classroom into a distribution center for a period, and play a simulation game. Students learn cycle counting, slotting, and warehouse operations while getting immediate visual feedback on the consequences of their decisions.

Chen: Many companies realize they can benefit from analytics-driven solutions. The ability to visualize data or identify demand patterns using data can be useful for making decisions. But hard skills must be coupled with soft skills. For example, understanding collaboration and communication is as important as understanding modeling and technology. That's why we design curricula from a management perspective rather than entirely from a business standpoint.

Burke: A recurring theme is the need for graduates to persist in adding value—not just in entry-level positions but also in the next step up the corporate ladder. This often requires substantial interpersonal knowledge and skill. Therefore, we embed discussions on the importance of thinking long term in relationships. We also provide frameworks for effective interactions with others in courses such as purchasing, negotiation, professional selling, and team-based assignments.

Q: Conventional wisdom maintains that educators are training today's students for jobs and challenges we haven't yet imagined. How do you address this in your curricula and classrooms?

Prokop: While we can't know for sure what jobs will look like in the decades ahead because technology progresses so rapidly, some constants will always be a source of value to any employer. One is the ability to think, which means that students need to be challenged intellectually. Another, which universities are good at, is to give students a social experience. We invite industry leaders as guest speakers in our classes and student club meetings. This gives students a chance to network. To offer students a glimpse into the future, we are also generous with field trips and job-shadowing opportunities.

Burke: We provide well-organized topical content to "know" and instruction on ways or "skills" to analyze and approach challenges in managing supply chains. However, we also stress the uncertainty inherent in coupled supply and delivery systems. Broadly speaking, we admit there is much that managers cannot know, and at best we make educated guesses as to future challenges. In terms of preparing students in this light, we stress development of time management skills, generalized capabilities, and strategic thinking.

Lukszys: We are constantly in touch with our industry partners to ensure the education we deliver is relevant to their needs. My courses change from year to year based on industry events and trends. Same-day—or even same-hour—home delivery using technologies such as self-driving and unmanned aerial vehicles, or shared transportation, are trends we discuss in the classroom.

Q: How do you prepare students for the demands of globalization?

Chen: Our global management major is designed for this purpose. Logistics technologies and transportation have become increasingly efficient and inexpensive. More companies can afford to globalize operations such as sourcing or market expansion. The global management major curriculum aims to develop students' managerial knowledge, financial acumen, and political savvy. And students have to be able to speak at least two languages before they can graduate.

Prokop: UAA degrees are conferred in global logistics and supply chain management. To that end, we focus on international trade and activities that grow out of this, such as transportation, outsourcing, and foreign direct investment. Alaska is on the great circle trade route connecting Asia with the Lower 48. It's a major air cargo hub, so our students are trained in air cargo logistics, including a solid understanding of the regulatory environment. This is important because Alaska enjoys the most liberal air cargo transfer operations allowed anywhere in the United States.

Burke: We require courses in global supply chain management and international logistics. Our programs look at "global" in two complementary ways. First, we think about what is best for a focal firm and how that course of action may be a net loss when its impacts are felt throughout a network of the focal firm's suppliers and customers. Second, we study the flow of goods and services that are the ever-present relays of intermodalism. Students work individually and in teams, studying modern supply chain issues to identify problems, suggest practical steps for execution improvement, and communicate findings.

Lukszys: We take students to see globalization firsthand. Students recently visited the Panama Canal to see in practice what its recent expansion means to global trade.

Blythe: We partnered with two global universities—Dresden University of Technology in Germany and the University of Stavanger in Norway—to develop graduate and undergraduate exchange programs. In Germany, students study the automobile industry; in Norway, they study the oil and gas/energy industry. These experiences provide hands-on and classroom learning about the supply chains for those key industries and about globalization's numerous impacts.

Q: Students expect economic volatility, but what skills will they need to manage it within the SCM arena?

Chen: I once read that managers tend to ignore potential problems if their companies are making lots of money. But the economic downturn forced companies to pinch pennies and reduce costs. Under such volatility, students need to be able to work effectively and efficiently with others to maximize productivity. Project management skills are essential for supply chain management during economic turmoil. Good project managers make sure they deliver results on time and within budget.

Blythe: Students need to see volatility to understand it. Our program extensively uses online simulations, allowing students to make decisions and see their results almost immediately. These simulations can demonstrate several years of activity over a short period, which gives students a perspective that would not be possible with only lecture-style lessons.

Prokop: Volatility brings risk, and risk can be managed to a certain degree. Our students take courses in statistical analysis and business intelligence, where they learn the tools necessary to measure risk. What can be measured can be managed.

Burke: Logistics systems are often volatile, so students need to fundamentally understand sources of uncertainty—where are the demand and supply linkages that can exacerbate or mitigate variability? Seasonality is also a big part of volatility in global supply chains. Ultimately, students need skills that allow them to be adaptable.

Q: What new skills do SCM students need?

Burke: To succeed in managing supply chains, students need flexibility in their capabilities. They must at once be technical and relational. They must be strategic thinkers, effective planners, clear communicators, and always mindful of executing activities in ways that give the strategy its shape.

Chen: Knowing how to make data-driven decisions is already a minimum requirement for SCM students. But in real life, data is rarely given. Decision makers must find or collect relevant data to analyze identified problems. Students need to be able to discern between useful and irrelevant information/data, especially in this big data era.

Another skill is networking. I suggest that SCM students stay connected with peers in or outside the field to stay up to date on the latest market trends.

Prokop: Students need to have skills in emerging technologies, including computers to handle the latest modeling and business simulations software. They also need to learn about different business cultures, because much of the world does not share the U.S. concept of time management, negotiation, and trust building.

Jake Dean, UW-Madison: Students need to understand that there's a huge supply chain opportunity in digital products and services as well as traditional physical goods. There may be no inventory, but you still have to design the product, source it, deliver it, and license it in line with how the customer wants to consume it. That's supply chain.

Q: Students today seem to be an interesting mix of pragmatism and idealism. How can/does an SCM program harness that?

Burke: Engagement is still a popular buzzword in higher education. Knowing that our students are inclined toward economic gain, environmental stewardship, and social good is knowing that students want to be "sustainable" people. An SCM program can harness that by making clear that supply chains and those who manage them have amazing opportunities to improve this triple bottom line. A few years ago, Dave Guernsey, father of sustainability with UPS at the time, was a guest speaker. He said that conserving fuel makes a lot of sense for UPS on all three dimensions of sustainability. It is a win-win-win. This really resonated with students.

Lukszys: It's important to demonstrate to students how much of an impact supply chain has on both the pragmatic and the idealistic. On the idealistic side, we are continuing to be successful with our Farm to School project, with the goal of getting more locally grown food into Wisconsin K-12 schools and institutions. Our students get to solve real, local supply chain problems, and Wisconsin farmers and producers get their products to a previously unavailable market.

Prokop: Logistics and supply chain management both add a dose of pragmatism—or realism—to the idealism often taught in other disciplines. For example, economics and marketing talk of efficient market trades without a real sense of transportation across vast distances, various terrains, and international borders in order to complete the transaction. Accounting explicitly includes a logistics activity in the balance sheet—inventories—but gives little sense of other logistics activities in financial statements.

Logistics is the art and science of managing the constraints of time, physical space, and location. It is also an exercise in trade-offs. For example, should a firm hold a lot of inventory and accept a bulk discount on transport, or should it bring in products just-in-time and incur higher costs and more frequent transportation? Managing this trade-off in tandem with a host of other trade-offs—all in a world of uncertain costs and revenues—is the essence of pragmatism.

Now, consider supply chain management. Management and economics education often emphasize profit maximization. But, in a supply chain setting, why squeeze a vendor in order to maximize profits? Perhaps it's better to cultivate a relationship with the vendor so that supply is enhanced in terms of service quality.

The idea is to spread costs along a supply chain to partners better able to bear it. In this way, we look at the profit generated along the entire supply chain and not at any particular partner. Competition is often discussed in business classes. Does Walmart compete with Target? Does Boeing compete with Airbus? Yes, they do. However, it is more accurate to say that their supply chains compete with one another.

In other words, negotiations, vendor contracting, and relationship building are sources of competitive advantage just as much as competing over retail prices and expanding into other markets.

Chen: In my view, supply chain management is about coming up with strategies and putting things to work. It requires not only creative ideas but also solid implementation and collaboration plans. I welcome students of all kinds to join the supply chain management realm because they all have their own strengths and can contribute in unique ways.

An SCM program should harness such great potential by showing students the need for their talents in practice, comprehensively developing their skill sets, and guiding them to the right career paths.