Supply Chain Education Kindles New Skills
Eager to turn the page on disruption and upheaval, supply chain programs bookmark critical skill sets and help prepare future leaders and logisticians.
As supply chain complexity increases and business disruptions grow more pronounced, supply chain education programs at the undergraduate and graduate level are responding to bolster the skill sets of upcoming and current supply chain practitioners.
In particular, supply chain management (SCM) programs focus on building leadership skills and driving change, says Robert Handfield, PhD, professor of supply chain management at NC State University and director of the Ethical Apparel Index Initiative.
To prepare future supply chain and logistics leaders, programs incorporate technology applications into their courses, notes Morgan Swink, professor of supply chain management and executive director, Center for Supply Chain Innovation, at Texas Christian University’s Neeley Business School.
Supply chain solutions explored in courses now go beyond enterprise resource planning software to data analytics and machine learning—in short, they delve into how to leverage data to make better decisions.
“Technology is used to capture, analyze, and gather information to inform future decisions,” says Malini Natarajarathinam, PhD, from Texas A&M University’s Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution. “Technology is also used to design and deliver efficient solutions and enhance customer value.
“Technology applications and digital adoptions in the supply chain cover a broad spectrum,” she says. “All levels of supply chain education programs are incorporating these changes into their learning and engagement activities.”
Taking on Risks and Crossing Disciplines
Today’s supply chain practitioners contend with increasing complexity while meeting multiple objectives, from controlling costs to ensuring sustainable operations. As a result, companies seek a broad range of skills—data analytics, risk management, operations know-how, supply chain strategy—from supply chain program graduates.
The increased focus on data analytics is the most significant change in course content in the past three years, notes Jack Buffington, professor and academic director at the University of Denver’s supply chain management program.
Supply chain education programs emphasize and build these in-demand skills with an interdisciplinary approach—including technology in both course content and delivery.
“Over the past three years, supply chain education programs have become significantly more interdisciplinary, incorporating many of the latest technology and industry trends,” says Madhav Pappu, clinical associate professor at the Department of Information & Operations Management in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.
“While covering important topics such as globalization, digital transformation, data analytics, sustainability, and risk management, many of these courses integrate platforms such as blockchain and the Internet of Things,” Pappu says.
Managing risks has catapulted to the top of supply chain curriculum imperatives, as the pandemic underlined the need for supply chain resiliency.
“The biggest change has been a far greater focus on the importance of dynamic risk management,” notes Ted Stank, professor of supply chain management and co-faculty director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee.
The pandemic changed a lot of what we discuss and teach in our supply chain classes. We now teach more about agile and responsive supply chains, muti-sourcing in different regions of the world, and making sure organizations have the inventory they need to operate.
Professor of Supply Chain Practice
Preparing For Global Supply Chain Instability
“The world has been increasingly less stable in the past few years with global alliances and geopolitics in the midst of the biggest shift we have seen since World War II,” Stank says. “That shift has impacted global supply chain networks, and we need to understand better how to brace our supply chains against the future shocks that are sure to come.”
At Boston University’s Metropolitan College, for instance, the masters in supply chain management program now includes a concentration in risk management.
“Supply chain education programs increasingly emphasize risk management and resiliency,” notes Dr. Canan Gunes Corlu, associate professor, coordinator of supply chain management programs, and co-director, Decision Sciences Research Laboratory at Boston University.
“The programs that stay on top of current trends in the market educate their students on analytical approaches as well as the digitalization of supply chains,” she says.
The global disruption that has happened the past three years has not only given educators a lot of interesting topics to discuss, it has also allowed for an initial understanding of the supply chain for new students.
The recent focus on advanced manufacturing is allowing for new opportunities at all schools. Hopefully, administrators recognize there is great overlap in logistics and manufacturing.
–Jeremy D. Banta, MBA
Assistant Professor & Program Coordinator
Supply Chain Management
Columbus State Community College
From Hybrid to Hands-On, Options Expand
In addition to tweaking course content, supply chain programs are also adjusting how they impart and reinforce core skills.
“Some programs have increased the focus on hands-on learning experiences, such as internships and case studies, to help students gain critical-thinking and practical skills,” says Professor Pappu from Texas A&M University. “Additionally, many programs have added online and hybrid formats to accommodate growing demand for flexible and accessible options.”
Online and hybrid options are here to stay—both to provide students with more options and to keep them engaged with the course curriculum.
“Educators must use clever audio and video hooks to keep students engaged with course material and with each other to mimic what happens in real time in a classroom,” notes Dr. Darren Prokop, professor of logistics at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Business & Public Policy.
“Virtual as well as physical field trips and online discussions with industry leaders are great ways for students to appreciate the diverse elements of supply chain management,” he adds.
“One important element is learning how to turn data and information into actionable knowledge,” says Dr. Prokop. “This avalanche of electronic inputs needs well-trained, sometimes out-of-the-box thinking, to make sense of it.”
Customization and Technology Transform Education
The need to make sense of the data avalanche is fueling programs to provide customized offerings and tailor courses to meet niche career paths.
“The new reality calls for a completely customized offer, which integrates all available technological resources,” says Dr. Miguel Ángel García, director of the SCM masters program at the Zaragoza Logistics Center, a research institute affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Zaragoza.
“Students demand educational experiences tailor-made to their individual needs and abilities,” he says. “Personalization stems from this demand to improve academic performance and the potential job success of students.
“Technology is transforming the way we teach and learn,” he adds. “Technological tools, such as online learning, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification, allow educators to meet the goal of customized learning.
“In addition, technology contributes to the development of essential skills today, such as collaboration and problem solving in complex environments, essential for the labor market,” he says. “Customization and technology are therefore the winning strategies.”
Beyond Book Smarts
Along with reinforcing the fundamentals of supply chain management, programs embrace a problem-solving approach, addressing the challenges that will loom large in the foreseeable future, from resiliency to sustainability.
“We see more student demand from the field to incorporate an academic and professional focus on the changing dynamics of the post-pandemic world,” says Dara Schniederjans, associate professor of supply chain management and the director of the MS in Supply Chain and Applied Analytics Program at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business. “Students no longer want general courses with overviews of topics from models dating back decades ago.”
“Students seek a more complete understanding of the detailed issues that impact societal benefit going forward,” notes Professor Schniederjans. “Programs that emphasize curriculum with a forward-thinking approach vs. theoretical guidebooks will find fortitude during a time of decreasing enrollment.”
A New Chapter in Supply chain Management
While undergraduate institutions in general see declining enrollment, the interest in supply chain management has been on the upswing in recent years.
“Supply chain education has grown in popularity and demand,” says Terry L. Esper, associate professor of logistics at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. This is due to the intensifying attention on supply chain as disruptions have stripped grocery aisles and commandeered headlines.
“The knowledge of how critical supply chain management is has become much more widespread. As a result, supply chain and logistics have become the ‘it’ majors,” says Professor Esper.
“We have also seen a transition in terms of how we engage with students. A much more self-directed and virtually educated wave of talent is entering the market,” he notes. “The long-term impacts of this trend remain to be seen, but we are experiencing a major shift in terms of how students prefer to be educated and how they prefer to work as they launch their careers.”
Companies have realized the world—especially the supply chains—is increasingly complex. This has led to a shift toward more specialized programs such as specialty masters in supply chain management.
These programs are more focused on quickly developing deep expertise in their learners and fostering immediate positive impact for their employers.
–David Dobrzykowski, PhD
Supply Chain Management
Sam M. Walton College of Business
University of Arkansas
What’s the One Thing You Would Do to Solve the Talent Gap?
Put more SCM coursework in high school classrooms to help direct some of those talented students into business schools and SCM classrooms. So many bright high school students go into college for engineering or economics not knowing SCM exists, much less how it would fit their interests.
Through games and guest lectures, students can start considering supply chain careers as early as middle school.
–Julie A. Niederhoff
Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management
Enhance our emphasis on soft skills and leadership training for supply chain students. So much of the talent issue is not just sheer numbers, but also a gap in the bridge between entry-level and upwardly promotable supply chain talent. We need to produce not just good supply chain analysts and managers but also leaders. This is where a stronger focus on soft skills can be most impactful.
–Terry L. Esper
Associate Professor of Logistics
Department of Marketing and Logistics
Fisher College of Business
Ohio State University
Take advantage of the dip in employment in traditional technology firms to hire tech-savvy workers. Supply chain management needs more workers with data science and computing skills than they have been able to attract.
Employees who previously spent most of their time writing code or analyzing data could find themselves working on bigger picture issues and developing tools to make supply chain systems run more smoothly.
Director, Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics
Masters Degree Program
Professor, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
University of Washington
What’s the Single Most Important Skill for a Career in SCM?
Analytical thinking and communication skills are crucial for a career in supply chain management. It’s a quantitative field that requires a high level of coordination among different parties.
Director, MS in Supply Chain Management
Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago
The ability to use soft skills to effect collaboration. Individuals first need to effectively communicate with people inside and outside their company, and to display a willingness to act as a team player. Second, they need to work on developing relationships within their company and across supply chain partners so that trust is built and communication can flow, to enable supply chains to function at their best.
–John E. Mello, PhD
Professor of Supply Chain Management
Arkansas State University
Analytics competency. Supply chains today are data rich and analysis poor. So much can be learned about supply chain performance and even customer behavior from the supply chain data that exists today. At the same time, advanced analytics and computing, such as machine learning, are now providing access to powerful, more intuitive tools that unlock the value in the data.
EVP, Industry & Services
Being able to effectively and efficiently problem solve is essential. Young people must be able to apply critical thinking skills to analyze a problem and identify the true cause, so that they can swiftly implement a solution.
–Jill M. Bernard Bracy, PhD
Associate Teaching Professor, Supply Chain & Analytics
Acting Director, Supply Chain
Risk & Resilience Research Institute
University of Missouri – St. Louis
What Advice Would You Give on Day 1 in a Supply Chain Position?
Know your customers (both external and internal), have a can-do attitude, be open to change, and be analytical in making good decisions. As a leader, believe in yourself and most importantly, believe in others.
–Angela Hansen-Winker, M.S., SSGB
Lead Faculty, Supply Chain Management
College of Business
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College
Cultivate your relationships. This is the single most important thing you can do to keep your operation moving. If you’re not willing to pick up the phone or travel to meet a key partner, you are not building a relationship that will withstand the disruptions that are eventually going to face you head-on.
Professor of Supply Chain Management
Robert & Jane Sturgeon Fellow in Business
Supply Chain Forum
Iowa State University
Understand the entire supply chain, from end to end, no matter where your role falls within it. Knowing how your work affects the downstream logistics, or how a peer’s work upstream will affect your job, is vital to an efficient supply chain.
Supply Chain Strategy
Be a process thinker. We succeed and fail based on continuous improvement in the field of supply chain. Our field is dynamic (some would call it chaotic), and your role will become easier when you understand that you can solve the great challenges that face you when you focus on the process.
Professor and Academic Director
Supply Chain Management Program
University of Denver