Logistics Goes to the Head of the Class

Ten years ago, logistics education meant learning how to drive a forklift. Today, schools focus on teaching total supply chain management, and graduates are quickly snatched up by recruiters who know smart logistics managers can help the bottom line.

Logistics and supply chain education has come a long way from its early days.

“Thirty years ago, eight students enrolled in my logistics classes,” says Dr. Ronald Ballou, operations professor, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. “Three years ago, I taught two logistics classes with a total enrollment of 70 students. Though graduate program enrollments and class sizes have declined overall recently, I still have 30 students enrolled.”

Companies’ increased awareness of the importance of logistics and supply chain management has greatly impacted logistics education, says Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth, assistant professor of logistics, University of Alaska, Anchorage.

“Logistics education has been on the upswing over the last 10 years,” he says. “Defining exactly what constitutes logistics and supply chain management is constantly changing as company managers, owners, and board members learn how employees trained in logistics can help increase the bottom line.”

Logistics education is also on the rise at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass., where applications for logistics and supply chain management programs increased 20 percent annually over the last five years, according to Dr. Chris Caplice, executive director of MIT’s Master of Engineering in Logistics program.

“By comparison, applications for top-10 MBA programs have dropped an average of 5 percent over the same period,” he says.

As the number of students focusing on logistics and supply chain management has grown, so too have the number of programs offered. Premier schools such as Michigan State University, Penn State University, the University of Tennessee, and Georgia Institute of Technology all offer logistics and supply chain management programs, and more schools are added to the mix each year.

So, how have logistics and supply chain management programs changed over the past few years and where are these programs headed? What skills do logistics students need to succeed in their careers? What are recruiters looking for?

Inbound Logistics posed these questions—and others—to several of the nation’s top logistics educators. Each professor’s unique experience and perspective helps shed light on the state of logistics and supply chain management education today.

What Students Need Now

There’s no question that a career in logistics and supply chain management today carries more clout than it did in the past. As a result, employers expect students with logistics degrees to bring more to the table than ever before.

“Until 10 years ago, logistics education came from three primary sources: the military, the ‘school of hard knocks’—years of driving trucks or forklifts before working your way up the corporate ladder—and a small number of engineering programs focused on materials handling, warehousing, and transportation,” says Dr. John H. Vande Vate, professor, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.

“In the last decade, companies have recognized the importance of logistics and elevated its role from the stockroom to the boardroom.”

As a result, logistics and supply chain management graduates must be well-rounded, well-educated, and flexible.

“People entering the logistics field need the ability to think broadly and interact with people in a variety of areas within a company. It’s not enough to just be a good tactical thinker,” says Dr. Robert Trent, supply chain management program director, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa. “They also have to be team-oriented.”

Both people and analytical skills are key, says Dr. Arnold Maltz, associate professor, supply chain management, Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe.

“Successful students all share an enthusiasm for their work, an appreciation of how effective logistics and supply chain management benefits their companies, and the ability to use analytical tools to identify possible solutions to operational and strategic problems,” he says. “Students who excel at front-line supervision also need the ability to relate to customers and people they work with.”

Not surprisingly, the qualities logistics students need aren’t that different from those that students in other business areas need.

“Technical skills and general management skills are important in every discipline,” says Dr. Thomas Speh, professor of distribution, Miami University of Ohio.

Speh identifies four key qualities of successful logistics students:

1. Passion. “The high performers in logistics have a deep passion for the discipline,” he says. “Those who don’t have passion don’t go very far.”

2. Humility. “The most successful logistics managers understand that they need to see logistics from the bottom up. They are willing to start out managing third shift in the warehouse,” Speh explains. “After spending four years in college learning to be a manager, it is humbling to spend one or two years in a warehouse supervising people twice your age.”

3. The ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. Logistics changes quickly, says Speh, and many variables must be dealt with on a moment’s notice. “You have to be able to roll with the punches and have a contingency plan to fall back on,” he notes.

4. The ability to interact with people inside and outside your firm. “If you can’t do this, you won’t be happy or successful in your career,” warns Speh.

The Changing Face of Logistics Education

The qualities students need to succeed play a key role in the design of logistics education programs around the country today. As the demands of corporate logistics and supply chain management departments change, so too does the education designed to prepare students for the “real world.” As with the field itself, logistics and supply chain management education is constantly evolving.

Technology has helped educators teach more efficiently. By using the Internet for communication and to post course materials, teachers can be more creative with class time.

“Reading materials, lecture notes, and PowerPoint slides are available online, so class time isn’t spent only on lecture, but on team assignments, working through analyses, and running simulations,” Speh says. “This ‘inverted classroom’ approach yields a greater focus on analytical, conceptual, and team-building skills.”

“The technology of education is accelerating change,” says ASU’s Maltz. “I can contact my students at any time if I need to change or update information for my courses. I don’t use overhead projections or paper much in class; all the presentations are on the course web site.”

Globalization also plays a large role in the way educators teach logistics today.

“I spend more time on international examples and cases, as well as import-export issues,” Maltz says. “In addition, the makeup of my classes is increasingly multinational, and our recruiting base is expanding to foreign-owned companies and third-party logistics providers.”

Supply chain basics, of course, are crucial for students to master, and are still an important part of logistics degree programs. The University of Tennessee, for example, recently added a “tools” class for students, focusing on basics such as transportation and partnerships, as well as technology and team-building skills.

“It is important for our students to have a basic toolkit to take with them into the workplace,” explains Dr. John T. Mentzer, logistics professor, University of Tennessee.

Another recent change in logistics education is the focus on key management skills such as leadership, collaboration, teamwork, and team building. With the current industry-wide emphasis on supply chain collaboration, students have to understand fundamental concepts such as organizational behavior, and how to mobilize people with different functional expertise, responsibilities, and performance measures.

But perhaps the biggest change in logistics ed ucation is the overall move away from tactical aspects toward broader skills. Logistics programs are evolving into supply chain management programs, reports Lehigh’s Trent.

“We have elevated our program levels. They are broader in scope, examining the supply chain all the way back to point of origin,” he says.

“Programs have moved away from the traditional focus on transportation and logistics,” agrees Brooks A. Bentz, honorary fellow at the University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute. “The emphasis now is on the total supply chain—demand forecasting and planning, fulfillment, and order-to-cash cycles.”

Most of these educational trends have occurred at the graduate level, although the changes are starting to show up in undergraduate business and engineering programs as well.

“This trend will continue,” says Georgia Tech’s Vande Vate. “Formal degree offerings providing credentials in logistics and supply chain management at both undergraduate and graduate levels will increase. I hope business schools and engineering schools will begin to collaborate, leading to comprehensive supply chain management programs that encompass both aspects.”

With an uptick in professionals seeking education later in their careers, schools are also catering to the demands of experienced logisticians seeking advanced education.

“Thirty years ago, a bachelor’s degree was the end of the road,” says MIT’s Caplice. “Then, getting an MBA was considered all the education you needed. Now, we understand the need and value for professionals to continue learning throughout their careers.”

Recruiters placing logistics graduates in the workplace seek specific qualities. “They want graduates who can apply technical skills to solve logistics problems, and understand the basic principles—such as cost trade-offs, process management concepts, and postponement—underlying logistics and supply chain management,” says Case Western’s Ballou.

“The first is important for graduates just starting their careers, and the latter is crucial to experienced professionals moving up the corporate ladder.”

In addition, recruiters look for potential employees with relevant experience. “Recruiters want to see some type of interaction with the industry: work experience, internship, or meaningful industrial project,” Ballou explains. “They also want communication skills and diversity.”

Solid supply chain management skills, backed by experience and functional expertise, are also in demand. “Graduates with broad and deep skills in supply chain technologies are particularly appealing,” Vande Vate says.

Students who want to impress recruiters have to be on top of their game to stand out from the pack. One recruiter, for example, routinely receives more than 3,000 applications for each logistics management job announced in a newspaper or magazine, reports Vande Vate.

“A supply chain degree or certificate, along with real-world work experience, is a competitive advantage for getting noticed by recruiters,” he says. “Consequently, many university programs incorporate internship positions in their curriculum to help students gain logistics experience.”

What do these changes mean for logistics education programs in the future? Several trends will arise, Vande Vate predicts:

  • Greater integration and closer collaboration between engineering and management programs in logistics and supply chain management.
  • Stronger international focus and content. Universities are likely to begin requiring international study or internships.
  • Greater industry/academia collaboration. “Industry will increasingly recognize that working closely with universities is necessary to ensure a pool of capable candidates, and offers opportunities to identify top performers early on,” Vande Vate says.

“Universities, in turn, will work to bring lessons learned from the industry into the logistics and supply chain curriculum.”

Educators also expect supply chain curriculums to broaden. “There is a saying that the only true supply chain manager is a company president,” Speh says.

With that in mind, programs will evolve to prepare logistics managers to act as if they are C-level executives, looking at logistics in the greater context of its effect on the company as a whole.

“Focus will continue to increase on both functional and inter-firm integration,” says Speh. “Obviously we can’t ignore the fundamentals of logistics processes, but we can broaden the learning experience.”

The scope of logistics education will similarly evolve at Arizona State University, says Maltz. “We are working on a seamless, completely integrated supply chain curriculum,” he explains.

“Logistics skills—such as optimization using Excel and process mapping—that are considered ‘nice to have’ now, will become fundamentals we expect students to know.”

At MIT, the future curriculum has a global bent, with an expected increase on working across cultures, geographies, and time zones, according to Caplice. “We’ll also make changes to our program that reflect the expansion of the supply chain’s role within an organization to areas such as product design, marketing, and other core functions,” he says.

Companies looking to hire recent logistics or supply chain management graduates can expect students to offer more than ever before. “Employers want to see passion, focus, communication skills, leadership potential, determination, flexibility, and a positive attitude in students who know what they want to do and why,” says Speh.

Today’s logistics programs are on track to deliver just that.

Meet the Faculty

Brooks A. Bentz is an honorary fellow at University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute, and board member of the graduate transportation program. He is also a partner in Accenture’s supply chain management practice, based in Boston. His areas of expertise include transportation strategy and operations, outsourcing, third-party logistics, private fleet management, and strategic transportation procurement.

Dr. Chris Caplice

Dr. Chris Caplice is executive director of the Master of Engineering in Logistics Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. His research focuses on transportation procurement, auctions and bidding using optimization-based approaches; strategic transportation design using portfolio planning; and robust transportation planning.

Dr. John H. Vande Vate

Dr. John H. Vande Vate is a professor and executive director of the Executive Masters in International Logistics program at the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. Over the past few years, Dr. Vande Vate has split his time between Georgia Tech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth

Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth is assistant professor of logistics at the College of Business and Public Policy, University of Alaska, Anchorage. He has also taught courses at Old Dominion University, University of Florida, and in schools throughout Europe. He has authored numerous articles and books.

Dr. Ronald Ballou

Dr. Ronald Ballou is professor of operations at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. He has published more than 50 articles in professional logistics, operations, and marketing journals, and is the author of several books. His area of research includes supply chain design and management—specializing in facility location—inventory control, and optimizing transportation systems.

Dr. Thomas Speh

Dr. Thomas Speh is the Rees distinguished professor of distribution at Miami University of Ohio. He is past president of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals; past president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council; and has presented research in 10 different countries. His focus is on supply chain management performance measurement, supply chain management collaboration, warehousing cost analysis, and reverse logistics/returns and functional integration.

Dr. Arnold Maltz

Dr. Arnold Maltz, associate professor, W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University, Tempe, focuses his research on international issues in logistics and supply chain management, with special concerns for U.S.-Mexico border operations. He is also investigating logistics issues involving global sourcing and the likely consequences of the United States’ transformation to an import-driven economy. He is co-author of 28 referred publications, three monographs, and two books.

Dr. John T. (Tom) Mentzer

Dr. John T. (Tom) Mentzer is the Harry J. and Vivienne R. Bruce Chair of Excellence in Business in the department of marketing and logistics at the University of Tennessee. His focus is on logistics’ contribution to customer satisfaction and strategic advantage in supply chains; computer decision model application for logistics, marketing, and forecasting; and sales forecasting management. He has benchmarked supply chain management and demand management practices at more than 500 companies.

Dr. Robert Trent

Dr. Robert Trent is the supply chain management program director and the Eugene Mercy associate professor of management at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Prior to his return to academia, Trent spent seven years with Chrysler Corporation. He is author of numerous articles and has focused his research on supply chain management.

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