Supply Chain Education: Ask The Professors
Show of hands: who has questions about supply chain education and pursuing a career in the field? Leading professors are here with the answers.
“There is no standard career path in supply chain management (SCM). You are in control of your own destiny and have the opportunity to pursue hundreds of potential career paths. A broad base of business skills, knowledge of supply chain processes, and relevant internship/work experience will give you ample opportunity to begin your career with a manufacturer, retailer, carrier, third-party logistics firm, or other organization. You will likely begin as a management trainee, analyst, or front-line supervisor. As you demonstrate your managerial capabilities, you can progress to SCM positions of greater responsibility.”
That's how the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals characterizes a career in SCM today. The description accurately reflects the fact that SCM offers a broad range of job opportunities—good news for students pursuing degrees in the field.
Given its diverse, cross-functional nature, what kind of education best equips students to pursue a career in supply chain management? And how have the supply chain industry's educational requirements changed over the past decade?
Inbound Logistics asked a group of distinguished professors at leading university supply chain programs to comment on these and other issues. Their insights offer a barometer on supply chain's current and future evolution.
Q: How have students, classes, and courses of instruction changed over the past 10 years?
Thomas Corsi, University of Maryland: The past decade has seen the explosion of three major trends that have necessitated re-engineering our course of study in transportation/logistics/supply chain. First is the globalization of economic activity. Companies routinely are defined globally in terms of sourcing and sales. They secure components from a variety of suppliers in dispersed global regions. And the market for products is now global rather than regional. This shift places transportation/logistics/supply chain in a central role.
Second, global supply chain precision requires information systems and software applications that coordinate and facilitate the complex physical movements associated with global logistics. The expansion of the Internet and growing sophistication of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and supply chain management software are critical components in support of the complex global supply chain.
High-speed data transfer, information sharing, and sophisticated software applications now underpin business operations among all parties in the supply chain. The use of these applications in a real-time environment is no longer limited to the largest companies, but is increasingly available to small and medium-sized firms across the globe.
The third trend requiring re-engineering of our supply chain curricula is volatility in the world economy. During the past five years, we have experienced a global recession only slightly less severe than our Great Depression, major natural disasters, and massive product recalls. The new business norm is not sustained growth and stability, but disruptions, volatility, and uncertainty.
Arnold Maltz, Arizona State University: Students are more knowledgeable and worldly than they were 10 years ago. They understand that they are competing in a global economy.
For many, it is clear that a business degree is a practical choice, not necessarily a passion. This may be particularly true in supply chain, where the demonstrated need continues. Thus, I see many double-majors in SCM and finance, marketing, and/or information systems. I believe students see this as a way to ensure better job prospects.
Students are becoming more interested in going out on their own, and starting their own businesses. This is partly due to the empowerment the Internet provides, as well as the economic carnage since 2007.
For the career changers, SCM is often an unknown and they learn as they go, expecting to get good offers. In that connection, students are even more demanding than in the past. They want value—including teaching and teaching materials that are clear, tailored, and experiential—in exchange for their high tuition. Our part-time MBAs are completely focused on employment opportunities, a change from 10 years ago when they were earning degrees at their employers' expense. They are more demanding because they are spending their own money, and they want knowledge they can use either in their current jobs or as a springboard to new opportunities.
Gene Tyworth, Penn State University: The Web has dramatically changed the way students network, communicate, conduct group work, and learn. Resident instruction now encompasses a blend of online, discussion, and presentation methods—all emphasizing experiential or hands-on learning.
Real-world content, exposure to supply chain best practices, and corporate internships are emphasized more than in the past. And globalization requires new or expanded coverage of topics such as risk mitigation and security, and new skill sets such as working across time zones in virtual groups.
C. John Langley, Penn State University: There has been a significant increase in demand for online and distance-based courses and degree programs. Interest in our Master of Professional Studies in Supply Chain Management degree is growing steadily, and we now offer this program to large numbers of full-time professionals.
We are making progress at involving more professionals with industry background and experience in our teaching mission. Former industry executives, for example, are providing some teaching capacity needed to keep up with the demand for additional courses and practical industry perspectives.
Lisa Ellram, Miami University: As logistics continues to make headlines, and consumers grow more aware of its impact on corporate success or failure, supply chain management has become more mainstream. Many students have already heard of logistics and supply chain management by the time they enter college. In the past, that was not the case; students often 'found out' about the field only after starting their college education.
Supply chain management now makes the news. Students hear about how supply chain issues, glitches, and failures directly impact the corporate bottom line. As a result, it is easy to incorporate current news into almost every class, so students can see the immediate relevance of what they are learning.
We also incorporate financial and customer service issues into our supply chain curriculum, to give students a more holistic view of the field. Students see the connection between supply chain and corporate performance.
Corsi: In terms of course design and content, we consider it essential that our students are comfortable with the tools of the global economy—enterprise resource planning software, forecasting and demand planning applications, advanced supply chain planning, and customer relationship management software. Our classes provide hands-on experience in corporate-level ERP and supply chain applications. This enables them to hit the ground running when they join the corporate world.
Sandor Boyson, University of Maryland: To better train students to manage in the new world of hyper-volatility, we have introduced instruction in supply chain risk management. Companies that successfully embrace supply chain risk management capability have seen improvements in revenue stability, asset utilization, and strategic agility in the face of an escalating global risk environment.
These realities place a premium on risk management skills. Students in our supply chain risk management course use a business simulation as a key teaching tool. The simulation, which focuses on the global electronics industry, engages teams in highly competitive game play where they experience supply chain risks and disruptions firsthand, and experiment with risk management strategies and solutions.
Q: What do students expect in the future?
Philip Evers, University of Maryland: Students who attend business school expect to graduate with a job. While universities provide career centers to help them, students ultimately have to put forth the effort to build their careers right from the start.
The good thing about supply chain is that there are many opportunities, and few degree-granting schools. For example, almost every university offers a finance degree. That's a lot of graduates entering the job market every year, so competition is fierce.
But the field of job applicants with degrees in supply chain management is far smaller. SCM graduates are more likely to stand out, compared with applicants who don't have a supply chain degree.
Our supply chain graduates—even those who weren't super-achievers, and weren't as involved in supply chain clubs and activities while at school—are getting jobs at big-name companies. That reflects the strong demand for new talent.
Ellram: Overall, students believe supply chain will continue to move up the corporate ladder, with more supply chain professionals achieving COO and CEO positions. Students also expect to see opportunities to open new supply chain-based businesses, or use supply chain management as a source of competitive advantage.
Students believe the field will continue to present more opportunities to work and live globally. For those who are willing, the opportunities are tremendous.
Maltz: Students take for granted less job security, and they realize that job demands are likely to increase.
Everyone assumes social media will be an integral part of the landscape, and the idea of doing much of anything 'by hand' is foreign. Students will need to be sophisticated in developing polished presentations and visual aids.
The part-time and full-time MBAs also realize, at least in the abstract, the importance of the 'people' aspect of the business, and we emphasize that in our program. Undergraduates, not surprisingly, often don't understand this.
Tyworth: Instructional technology and applications will continue to transform the way we teach, learn, and assess 'classroom' performance. We'll see more collaboration between instructional technologists and content experts to develop 'learning by doing and experimenting' materials or platforms.
Q. What new skills do SCM students need?
Corsi: Students should recognize that organizations place maximum emphasis on their ability to solve problems. Today's volatile environment constantly throws problems at supply chain managers and challenges them to find solutions. This is an important factor in our emphasis on tackling business case problems. We strongly advocate bringing professional business cases into the classroom and challenging students to solve them.
Evers: One skillset that is becoming more important—and the biggest change from the past—is foreign language fluency. Supply chain is a global business, and students need to know at least one language besides English. Applicants fluent in multiple languages make more attractive job candidates.
Additionally, students must be familiar with important software packages such as ERP and advanced planning and optimization systems. This is an absolute requirement.
We don't have the ability to teach students total proficiency in these programs, and there's no telling which ERP solution students will run across in their careers. But our curriculum provides a comfort level with these programs so if students get hired and are thrown in front of an ERP system, they won't get scared and run off.
Corsi: Expertise in these systems is not limited to technical knowledge. Students must demonstrate that they understand how these software tools help manage supply chains efficiently and resolve problems.
Students also need to be adept at working effectively in rapid start-up teams with people they have never met or worked with before. They need to be able to get a team up, running, working, and solving a problem or producing the required output—quickly and effectively. Our supply chain courses include many team projects designed to support students in learning this skill.
Langley: Information technology continues to develop as an area of critical need when managing businesses, organizations, and supply chains. We anticipated this priority, and several years ago formed the Department of Supply Chain and Information Systems within the Smeal College of Business. The synergies between these areas have great impact, and the end result is meaningful collaboration and sharing of knowledge and insight between these two important areas of study.
Internships have a proven ability to provide students and potential employers with a useful, initial opportunity to get to know one another, and for students to provide valuable activities that can benefit companies in need of qualified interns.
Students need the analytical skills to solve business and supply chain problems, and the vision and strategic perspective to identify and conceptualize those problems. We stress both strategy and execution in all our academic programs, with the end result being that most of our students at all levels are well-rounded intellectually.
Tyworth: There is growing interest in IT-driven 'analytics' to exploit the vast pools of data for a competitive edge. Supply chain graduates with complementary skills in the proper use of analytics tools and techniques will be highly sought after.
Ellram: Students need to be culturally savvy—both globally and within the organization. They must understand that doing business in Asia or India, for instance, is quite different from doing business in the United States.
Additionally, they must understand corporate culture, and how to work effectively within that environment. This requires good communication and collaboration skills—and an ability to sell their ideas and interact well with people at all levels and within all functions. While these requirements are not new, they are more complex given today's global supply chains.
Maltz: Students must understand and appreciate that customer expectations will continue to rise, and that SCM will have to be creative to fulfill those expectations while meeting continuing cost pressures.
Also, SCM students will have to get used to operating almost as if they are self-employed—taking initiative and driving their careers forward. Navigating multinationals will take much more cultural awareness and political acuity, and may mean that managing 'virtually' becomes a way of life.
Meet the Professors
Sandor Boyson, Research Professor of Supply Chain Management and Director, Supply Chain Management Center, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
Thomas M. Corsi, Michelle Smith Professor of Logistics and Director, Supply Chain Management Center, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
Lisa Ellram, Rees Distinguished Professor of Distribution, Farmer School of Business—Department of Marketing, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
Philip T. Evers, Associate Professor of Logistics Management, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
C. John Langley Jr., Clinical Professor of Supply Chain Management, Penn State University
Arnold Maltz, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management, W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University
Gene Tyworth, Chairman, Supply Chain and Information Systems Department and Coyle Professor of Supply Chain Management, Smeal College of Business, Penn State University