Logistics Education: Beyond the B.A.

A graduate degree plus executive education can help you be more competitive in the job market, and improve your paycheck’s bottom line.

When Kevin Weadick graduates this May from the MBA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Grainger Center, he’ll join industrial distributor W.W. Grainger Inc.’s leadership development program. Earning his MBA is all part of Weadick’s plan to transition from his career as a CPA to a supply chain professional. Going back to school is paying off for Weadick, who says his salary will jump by $20,000.

How important is education to career advancement? “On a scale of one to 10, education is a 12, in any market,” says Gayle S. Gorfinkle, president of Gorfinkle & Dane Executive Search, Braintree, Mass.

Education is crucial if you want to switch fields or focus, but is also a key differentiator for candidates in the current job market, which has more job-seekers scrambling for fewer jobs. Education is one of “the two ways a candidate can stand above the competition,” Gorfinkle points out.

The other differentiator: quantifiable accomplishments. Solid accomplishments coupled with an advanced degree form “an unbeatable combination,” she says.

An advanced degree has become more important in recent years. “Last year saw significant downsizing in the consulting industry,” notes Donald Jacobson, president, LogiPros LLP, an executive search firm based in Monroe, N.Y. “Consultants generally have a high level of education—and today many of them are vying for senior-level logistics positions at Fortune 500 companies.”

That means candidates for logistics positions may be competing against others who are more highly educated. Companies may include education as one of their criteria when screening candidates.

“The higher your level of education, the better your chances to get a shot at a new opportunity,” Jacobson notes.

Logistics professionals are better educated today than they were 20 years ago. Ninety-three percent of logistics professionals responding to a 2001 Ohio State University Survey of Career Patterns in Logistics hold an undergraduate degree, while more than half—56 percent—have a graduate degree.

Not surprisingly, universities are seeing an increased interest in graduate programs. Applications to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s supply chain management master’s program are up significantly, says Ted W. Bouras, director of Wisconsin’s Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management, Madison. The number of new students in its MBA program has doubled.

Similarly, MIT’s master’s of engineering in logistics program—which has 32 students—received 150 applications, according to Yossi Sheffi, professor of engineering systems at MIT and co-director of its Center for Transportation.

Gaining Credentials

“There’s a need for managers and executives to further develop themselves in terms of formal education, and at the same time learn new tools, techniques, and strategies for solving their logistics and supply chain challenges,” says C. John Langley Jr., professor of supply chain management at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and co-director of its Supply Chain Executive Forum.

Take Kurt Baumann, for example. Baumann wanted to transition from the work he was doing at his previous job—manufacturing planning—to supply chain management. To gain the credentials he felt he needed to make the change, Baumann quit his full-time job in order to earn his MS in Supply Chain Management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996.

Flexible hours at a job in international sales, marketing, and logistics enabled him to fit his work schedule around the 12 to 15 hours of classes he took each week.

Baumann’s career plan has worked out well. After graduation, he took a job with Ernst & Young as a supply chain management consultant, eventually becoming a senior consultant. He moved over to PricewaterhouseCoopers and expanded his scope from operations to systems integration. Baumann recently left the consulting world and began working for GE Medical Systems in Waukesah, Wis., where he has since trained as a Six Sigma black belt.

Logistics and supply chain professionals who want to further their education have a number of options to consider. If they want to pursue a graduate degree, they must decide whether to pursue a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) degree, with a specialization in logistics or supply chain management, or a Master’s of Science (MS) degree.

“Most MBA programs are pretty broad in terms of coverage,” John Langley notes. “They’re not specifically focused on logistics or supply chain management, but on a broader set of business principles.”

“As a logistics professional’s career grows, management skills become increasingly more important than technical skills,” Don Jacobson says. “For that reason, an MBA may give you a better opportunity to round out your skills than a master’s degree in supply chain management,” he says.

A master’s in logistics gives you a much more focused program, Langley says. What path you take may depend on the size of the company you work for or are targeting for future employment.

“Larger companies have lots of logistics executives and a more concentrated focus on logistics/SCM,” explains Gorfinkle. “Therefore an MS in supply chain management or an MBA with a concentration in logistics/SCM is highly prized, and allows a logistics professional to stand out from the pack.”

In smaller and mid-sized companies, however, “logistics professionals are often given a broader focus and scope of responsibility,” she says. “These companies may look at the classic MBA as more attractive.”

Pursuing an MBA

When Kevin Weadick signed up at Wisconsin, he elected to go after an MBA in Supply Chain Management rather than to pursue an MS.

“Most of the schools I looked at were offering MBAs,” he explains. “I see a trend toward converting MS programs to MBAs. The MBA degree is more recognized, so it’s easier for students to go to employers armed with an MBA degree with specialization.”

A growing number of universities are offering an MBA with a concentration in SCM/logistics.

“Programs that focus on logistics and SCM take many of the same principles that apply to all businesses, and specifically focus it on logistics and supply chain applications,” Langley explains. When presenting finance topics, for example, “you ask how logistics and supply chain are related to financial strategy, draw that linkage, then take it to other areas of the firm. This puts the general principles of business management in the context of a specific decision area.”

Making the Investment

“For my parents’ generation, it was a big accomplishment to earn a high school diploma,” notes James C. Ragucci, vice president of sourcing and logistics for Myron Corporation, Maywood, N.J. “For my generation, it was important to have a college undergraduate degree.”

As the marketplace gets more competitive today, more education—both formal and informal—is necessary for an individual to be competitive, he says.

“In today’s corporate environment, a graduate degree is almost a requirement” in some jobs, according to Kevin Weadick. “Twenty to 30 years ago an undergraduate degree was an entrance requirement. Now many employers encourage their employees to continue their education.”

Some individuals take substantial time off so that they can concentrate on their education.

“Taking two years out of your career is a monumental decision,” Weadick notes.

Another option is the executive master’s degree program that targets students who have been in the workforce for several years. This experience level makes student discussion exceptionally rich and valuable, Langley says, as students contribute real-world experiences from their own jobs.

Take Georgia Tech’s Executive Master’s in International Logistics (EMIL) program. Students complete five residencies of two weeks each, two of which are overseas. This makes it possible to earn a degree while continuing to work.

Earning an advanced degree in the evening and on the weekends is yet another option. While tuition isn’t cheap, Weadick observes that getting a graduate degree “is financially doable.” Loans and financial aid are available to many individuals pursuing a graduate degree.

During Weadick’s first year at the University of Wisconsin, for example, he worked as a project assistant. This year, he has a fellowship, which gives him a monthly stipend.

Weadick suggests that individuals considering graduate school “research financial aid available from different programs.” Some may offer more than others. “If you are getting a general management degree and want to pursue it at a top-tier school, there may not be as much financial aid available. Some of the smaller schools offer more financial aid to entice students who wouldn’t otherwise attend,” he says.

Returning to school “depends on whether people want to make that investment in themselves, and where they see themselves going in the long run,” Weadick says. “If you go back to school, companies recognize the sacrifice and commitment you’ve made to better yourself, and you may be rewarded for that.”

While graduate degree programs are appropriate for many logistics professionals, they’re not the answer for everyone. Steve Roberts, a project manager for gas manufacturer Praxair, is one of 275 individuals who have earned a Logistics Professional Series certificate from The Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech.

To earn the certificate, Roberts attended four mandatory week-long foundational courses in logistics, supply chain management, warehousing, and materials handling, plus several shorter workshops on logistics topics.

The year and a half that Roberts invested in completing the certificate program was well worthwhile, he says. “It’s a great learning tool. The contacts and benchmarking available through the program are great. Everybody has new ideas, and you’re always learning.”

In addition, Roberts and other students received from their instructors a wealth of programs, resources, and tools they could take back to their jobs.

The Short Answer

The short courses worked well for Roberts. “They give you a real understanding” of core logistics topics, providing a good overview and actionable information in far less time than required to earn a graduate degree.

“You can go in and focus on an area that affects your job, meet up with somebody who’s doing the same thing you’re doing, and form relationships that last,” he says, pointing out that networking is one of the greatest benefits of such a program.

Logistics professionals can choose from a host of short courses on topics ranging from import/export to safety in the warehouse. A number of universities offer well-established programs with these types of seminars.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, offers executive education through its Center for Transportation. Topics available through its Affiliate Program include revenue management in the supply chain or spare parts logistics as well as a week-long course on logistics and supply chain management.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers an extensive program of short courses on topics such as transportation, procurement, and supply chain management.

A variety of seminars are also available through seminar companies, consultants, and professional associations—such as the Warehouse Education and Research Council and the International Warehouse Logistics Association.

Individuals who attend targeted seminars are looking for answers, says Edward J. Marien, PhD, director of the Supply Chain Procurement and Transportation Management program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “These students come because they have particular problems that they’re looking to solve,” Marien notes.

Companies put a lot more emphasis today on getting results from the dollars they spend on their employees’ development. “Companies are looking for a return on their investment. They definitely want their money’s worth,” he says.

Evaluate the Options

Marien suggests that logistics professionals who are considering taking executive education courses evaluate their options carefully.

“Look at the program and see whether it will meet your needs. This will help you solve whatever problems you have. Is the course theoretical or actionable? Will you come away with knowledge that you can take back and implement on the job?”

Look at the educational institution as well, he suggests. “Does it have credibility, a good track record, and consistent offerings? Look at the instructors’ credentials. Do they have good content, instructional skills, and professional recognition? Are they credible?”

Finally, he says, evaluate the value proposition. “Does it look like you’ll get a good payback from completing the course?”

Other factors to consider are the location and price of the courses, as well as their foundation, notes Harvey M. Donaldson, director of The Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech.

For example, Georgia Tech’s programs are anchored in the school’s industrial engineering focus, while other programs may have their roots in marketing or general business. Do some research to determine which is right for you.

A final option appropriate for firms with 15 or more people involved in changing logistics, supply chain, procurement or related processes, is customized in-house training, Ed Marien notes. Such programs, which can be tailored to a company’s specific applications and problems, sacrifice the networking that is a valuable part of public programs.

A number of universities focus on custom programs, which can be offered at the university—such as at UW’s new Fluno Center for Executive Education—or at the company’s training site.

“Short courses allow you to focus on a specific area of interest,” notes John Langley. Those courses enable individuals to develop their knowledge in a specific area, perhaps to help solve a specific problem.

They are “targeted and skills-based rather than general education,” notes Georgia Tech’s Donaldson.

The objective of a graduate degree program, on the other hand, is to provide the executive or manager with a broad range of tools and strategies. “During the course of a degree program, on any given day, each person will be a little more or less interested in the topic, depending on how the content relates to his or her job. But all the content is related to helping each person become a better-equipped executive,” Langley says.

MIT’s Sheffi has another take on it. Executive education is about “learning what is going on right now,” he says, “learning what other companies are doing, and meeting people from other companies who are doing similar things.”

Long-Term Results

There’s value in both executive education and a graduate program. “Many companies are worried about the next quarter’s results. So thinking long-term, sending employees for a graduate degree, is a luxury that many companies don’t have,” Sheffi says. “That’s when executive education makes sense.”

However, Sheffi recommends that individuals who can complete a master’s program should do so. “You’ll come out of there with a deep understanding of the basics, which you can then build on yourself.” Individuals who earn a graduate degree “become better professionals,” he says.

Langley advises logistics professionals to “periodically dedicate some time to improving their knowledge and insight into issues. Each executive should have a career plan for development and education that should never stop.”

Even senior managers, Langley says, “need to have formal time away from all their other distractions to focus their attention on new logistics tools and techniques.”

Ted Bouras agrees. All managers “need to continue to reload their knowledge base,” he says, whether by attending seminars, participating in professional associations, or pursuing an additional degree.

Three-Pronged Education Plan

“It’s very helpful to continue to understand what new thinking, new approaches, and new ideas other people are experimenting with,” agrees Judith Anderson, who heads up the Allendale, N.J., management consulting and training firm of Anderson & Rust.

As an executive coach of logistics managers, Anderson urges her clients to continue their education. “Education can help you reach your goals more easily,” she says.

Georgia Tech’s Harvey Donaldson suggests that logistics professionals follow a three-pronged continuing education plan:

  1. Attend selected seminars and short courses at least every year or two.
  2. Get involved in professional associations and attend national conferences, as well as meetings sponsored by local chapters.
  3. Consider earning a graduate degree. You might do this in mid-career, whether you enroll in an evening MBA program five years after earning your undergrad degree or when you decide to pursue an executive MBA 15 years later.

Planning for this mid-career boost, which gives you “an academic framework to guide your career and your energy, is important,” Donaldson says.

Whatever career route you decide to take—advanced degree, executive education, or a combination of the two—the time and money you invest in your logistics education today can pay off in continued career success tomorrow.