Career Solutions: Talent Search

Career Solutions: Talent Search

Experience-based education programs seek out, woo, and train the next generation of supply chain talent.

Nothing puts a would-be supply chain professional to the test quite like firsthand experience.

True, the college classroom provides invaluable knowledge and hones indispensable skills. But hiring managers appreciate evidence that applicants, no matter their youth, have been there, done that, and developed some field-tested savvy along the way.

Internships have traditionally provided a short-term opportunity for just that, but colleges and universities are experimenting with other ways of developing—and frankly, of romancing—supply chain talent. One option—the apprenticeship—comes right out of the history books, but educators are adapting it for modern times and priorities.

These efforts are not only timely, they are also necessary. Across the country, companies big and small are facing talent shortages in their supply chain and logistics operations. What’s more, the shortages may well get more acute.

“The supply chain field is similar to manufacturing,” explains M.L. Peck of the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). “Baby boomers are retiring at an accelerated rate, and we don’t have a full pipeline of new talent to replace them. That is the crux of the issue.”

Fortunately, the professionals who staff the nation’s college-level supply chain and logistics programs have read the tealeaves. Working in partnership with industry advisory boards, a number of them are experimenting with new ways to lure talent to their own programs, equip students with hands-on opportunities, and overcome the daunting barriers to entry tuition costs present. Apprenticeships offer a way to do all three.

Take the newly minted registered apprenticeship in logistics and supply chain management at Harper College in Paslatine, Illinois. It’s one of a growing array of apprenticeship offerings at Harper, which has comparable programs to train students for careers in banking and finance, general insurance, industrial maintenance, and precision machining. All these apprenticeships grow out of a U.S. Department of Labor initiative to connect employers with the talent they need.

combining school and work

Here’s how Harper’s logistics/supply chain apprenticeship works: Students enroll in a two-year associate’s of applied science degree program while working in a compatible job for a participating company. The employers pay a salary with benefits, allow the apprentice time off during the workweek to attend classes, and mentor the student on the job.

To ensure that mentors are equipped to optimize the opportunity, Harper College provides them training in effective instruction and motivation. Some companies have balked at the mentoring requirement, believing the task will require too much time from a valued employee needed for other work. But, says Rebecca Lake, the college’s dean of workforce and economic development, students tend to need less and less mentoring as the apprenticeship progresses.

“When registered apprentices get the first couple of semesters under their belt, they are functioning at about 75 to 80 percent,” she explains.

In addition to providing a salary and mentoring, employers pay for the student’s tuition, fees, and books. In return, the students agree, via a Harper- and employer-authored contract, to stay on the job for a specified period after graduation, typically one to two years.

“Essentially the company has this person locked in for four years,” Lake explains. That may seem paltry to some employers, she says, but often they are the same individuals given to grousing about the staying power of new college graduates.

“We used to hire only people with bachelor’s degrees, but they all left after about 18 months, because they always expected to be the vice president of the company by then,” she says, repeating a refrain she has heard many times.

That said, companies need employees with more than just staying power. In fact, they’ve told Lake that they are looking not just for people with the right combination of communications, math, and problem-solving skills, but also for individuals who can collaborate and work with people from all different backgrounds. The curriculum has been designed accordingly. “We even dropped in a business ethics course, because many companies emphasize its importance,” Lake adds.

To ensure that classroom instruction complements the demands of the job, faculty members are encouraged to make assignments with relevance to employers. For example, a research assignment might call on the student to interview the company’s leadership about its challenges and strategies. This gives students the chance to learn about best practices while immersing themselves in the organization’s values and culture—an experience of lasting worth to both the student-employee and the employer.

In fact, the value to the employer can be measured in dollars and time. “As you move apprentices up in the company, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and teach them about your company,” Lake explains.

For students, the advantages are both financial and psychic. The apprenticeship is friendly to the budget and low on risk. “You come out with zero debt and two years experience,” Lake says.

What’s more, students graduate with a job and a degree that’s transferrable to a four-year institution.

The logistics/supply chain apprenticeship is in its first year, and to date, applicants to the program—who must demonstrate proficiency in several key skills—tend to be adults with work experience. “We find that it’s career changers, people who are working in part of the industry, but don’t see any way to move up,” Lake says. Still others floundered their way through previous educational and work experiences, never realizing that the supply chain offered meaningful career opportunities.

“Supply chain is a career, and it establishes a pathway to go wherever you want to go,” Lake says.

Turning the Beam on High School Students

At New Jersey’s Rutgers University, home to one of the nation’s youngest and largest supply chain degree programs, faculty are taking Lake’s message—this is a career with get go—to high school students, offering them some summer training with the possibility of a short-term apprenticeship.

It’s all part of an awareness/talent-development campaign aimed at exposing young adults to career opportunities they’ve probably never imagined.

“We have a challenge to educate not just prospective students, but also parents, guardians, and other influencing groups, because supply chain is not always well known, whereas accounting, economics, and finance are,” says John Impellizzeri, director of business and industry for the Rutgers Business School’s Center for Supply Chain Management, which serves as an industry advisory board to the academic program.

To remedy that, the business school introduced an initiative, now in its third year, “where we essentially do our Intro to Supply Chain Management course over a 40-hour program inside eight days,” Impellizzeri says. The “rising juniors” who complete the program earn three credits and the chance to apprentice/intern for a few weeks with a participating firm. That’s “so they can get the experience of the theory and then go out and work with our local businesses,” he adds.

“We offer the program to a group of students—largely underrepresented minority students—out of the greater Newark area,” Impellizzeri says. “In 2017, we had 33 students from six different schools, each of them selected by their high school administrators.”

The program is structured with hands-on learning in mind. Even during the classroom program, students are tackling the kinds of problems they can noodle over—“things they can relate to,” Impellizzeri says, such as recreating a fast-food chain for french fries or redesigning the chain for the mineral-dependent iPhone.

building enthusiasm

“We offer a great program in those eight jam-packed days, so students come out enthused about what supply chain management can mean for them,” Impellizzeri explains. “We show even those who are interested in sports, media, and music how supply chains relate to any interest they might have.”

They also see how logistics can influence everything from social justice to sustainability—areas that this generation cares passionately about.

The program is structured much like Rutgers’ undergraduate program, incorporating a Supply Chain Operations Research (SCOR) model. That involves the components and key processes of the supply chain—planning for demand, choosing between making and sourcing, delivering to the customer, and reverse logistics, Impellizzeri says.

Over the eight days, students spend their mornings learning theory from faculty members. Over lunch, they work on a case study that they present in the afternoon to their fellow students, faculty and, best of all, visiting company representatives. These representatives—from Coca-Cola or Pfizer as examples—offer their own feedback and share their company’s practices and experiences. These are the same companies that offer the summer work experiences available at the end of the course.

To date, students and participating companies report that they’ve found the experience eye opening and rewarding. “It blows their minds,” Impellizzeri says.

For their part, the participating firms have expressed eagerness to continue a relationship with the students, perhaps keeping in touch with them as they pursue their undergraduate degrees.

“These students are amazing,” Impellizzeri says. “They leave this program with a virtual Rolodex of academic faculty and corporate executives who are available to them as mentors. We’re building relationships that could go well beyond their academics.”

One of those students, Sara Shah, who attended Newark’s Science Park High School, enrolled in the Rutgers Business School in fall 2017, crediting the summer program with introducing her to supply chain’s possibilities.

“Consumers don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, especially when they’re kids,” she told the school’s media team. “So when you learn about the business relationships, it’s eye-opening.

“I want to understand business, and I feel that studying supply chain management would give me that understanding,” Shah adds.

One of three summer alums to enroll in Rutgers in 2017, Shah is emblematic of the participants and offers the business community hope that their talent-development challenges are being addressed.

“If I could put a little chip inside of these students so I could track them, I would,” Impellizzeri says. “Some of them are so amazing, and we don’t want to lose them.”

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