More Supply Chain Talent Needed

Stephen DeAngelis

December 06, 2012

“Members of today’s supply chain teams are busy,” writes Lora Cecere, founder of Supply Chain Insights. “Business complexity is rising and teams are trying to get to data and align the organization against supply chain objectives. It is not easy.” [“Supply Chain Talent: The Missing Link?” Supply Chain Shaman, 6 November 2012] As the title of her article implies, Cecere is not sure that supply chain talent is up to the challenges that face today’s supply chains. She’s not alone. Eric Kulisch writes, “There are not enough highly qualified logistics specialists with management skills entering the supply chain profession, or being groomed by companies, to meet demand as global productivity and trade continue to grow, industry executives and academics say.” [“Harvesting Logistics Talent,” American Shipper, November 2012] Shawn Casemore, president of Casemore & Co., insists that “challenges exist in attempting to engage and manage human performance across the supply chain.” [“How to Shore Up the ‘People’ Part of Supply-Chain Performance,” CFO, 8 August 2012]

In their own way, each of these analysts is addressing a serious problem facing the supply chain sector — a shortage of talent, especially at the management level. While addressing the shortage of talent, they aren’t casting dispersions at the dedicated professionals working in the field. Even dedicated professionals need the right training and education to gain the necessary skills and experience to match the tasks they are given. Only recently have supply chain professionals begun to rise to executive positions within corporate structures. As a result, many supply chain professionals haven’t been given the education and training they require to be better managers. Kulisch puts a lot of the blame on companies for “not adequately developing talent” as well as for being ineffective “at recruiting and preparing employees for executive positions.” Cecere writes:

“In the last decade, supply chain talent has increased in focus. Over 76% of companies have a supply chain organization, and 32% of companies have a dedicated HR team focused on supply chain human resources. The primary focus is on new hire programs and onboarding of college recruits. Progress has been made in new hire recruiting with the average company having a supply chain HR department for seven years.”

The following graphic, which Cecere published with her article, shows where she believes the greatest shortage of talent exists — in middle management.

Middle managers received a lot of bad press during the late 1990s and early 2000s and, across all industry sectors, thousands of middle managers lost their jobs. Only recently has the valuable role that middle managers play begun to receive some well-deserved attention. Cecere writes:

“The missing link in supply chain talent is mid-management. While many companies have focused on hiring entry-level talent from universities, the looming issue is turnover and a shortage of mid-level managers, especially in supply chain planning positions. While companies today are struggling with change management and the adoption of new business practices, the looming issue is upcoming baby-boomer retirements. The most important activity that supply chain leaders can take now to mitigate turnover and attrition in mid-management planning positions is to define clear job progression and career paths for mid-managers.”

Cecere believes that one of the skills in shortest supply “is supply chain planning.” She notes that “positions in customer service, transportation management and procurement are relatively easy to fill” but that “positions in mid-management, especially in supply chain planning leadership, are growing more difficult to recruit.” She indicates that the demand grossly exceeds the supply of such experts. Like Kulisch, she believes much of the blame falls on companies themselves. She laments, “In the face of this looming issue, only 16% of companies are increasing their budget for supply chain training.” Casemore writes:

“In the corporate world, training is often seen as a one-time event, the formula being: show up + participate in training = improved performance. Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it. The most effective training includes actions plans, accountability, review of material, coaching, and continued demonstration of the new desired behaviors. If you have procedures and practices that you want engrained in employees, you need to continually review them in a variety of situations and scenarios, and at different times. Therefore, the actual formula is: if we are human = make mistakes, continued demonstration = reduced errors.”

Unfortunately, during bad economic conditions, training is often one of the first activities that hits the budget chopping block. Normally, that decision turns out to be a bad decision. According to Kulisch, “Several forward-thinking organizations are putting more emphasis on upgrading human resources.” Shay Scott, managing director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee, agrees. He told Dustin Mattison, “Leading-edge companies are … sitting down and developing a supply chain management talent development plan. [“SCM Talent Development and Management Challenges,” Dustin Mattison’s Blog, 29 October 2012] He continues:

“We have continually dealt with a talent shortage of individuals that understand supply chain management, best practices, and how to really put those into place in their company to get the value that is possible.”

To address the middle management shortage addressed by Cecere, Kulisch notes that “some companies are no longer content to wait for the next generation of leaders to percolate up from their operational ranks.” As a result, they are fast-tracking their most promising supply chain professionals into those positions. Many of the fast-tracked candidates graduated from a “rigorous, two-year program from supply chain management programs at schools such as Penn State University, University of Tennessee, Central Michigan, Texas A&M, and Miami University of Ohio.” In fact, Kulisch recommends that companies work “closely with the universities.” He reports that “many schools are doing a better job at soliciting their input about the type of skills graduates should have and helping identify qualified students during recruiting visits.” Shay indicates that many companies are creating their own in-house training programs. He writes:

“[Some] companies [are] forming their own supply chain academies as a part of their corporate universities. I think at least seventy percent of the Fortune 500 companies have their own internal corporate university. So, taking advantage of knowledge that’s already inside the company and formally expanding that out to employees that need it is very much a viable way to meet the challenge if that knowledge exists within the company.”

Adrian Gonzalez, who teaches a supply chain management course as part of Northeastern University’s Executive MBA program, believes that one of the skills that graduates should possess is the ability to communicate both verbally and in writing. He indicates that having reviewed numerous written assignments, he has had to search for the good ideas — the “gold nuggets” — that are repeatedly buried “beneath [a] mess of grammar mistakes, spelling errors, incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, disjointed paragraphs. [“A Troubling Issue in Supply Chain Talent Development,” Logistics Viewpoints, 9 November 2011] He said that he “soon discovered that many of [his] students also lacked effective verbal communication skills.” He concludes:

“Simply put, a young professional with a lot of supply chain knowledge and experience, but with mediocre written and verbal communication skills to motivate, persuade, and get buy-in from others, will probably never reach the upper rungs of the leadership ladder.”

Although he believes that parents and educational systems must do a better job in this area, he writes, “Employers have to take some action and responsibility too.” He concludes:

“You can’t learn everything in a classroom. The best way to learn is to do. And this is particularly true for improving your communication skills. Classroom training on how to write well and give effective presentations is important, but you also need real-world opportunities to practice your skills, as well as coaches and mentors to provide you with ongoing feedback and advice for continuous improvement. Bottom line: Supply chain knowledge and experience can only get you so far up the leadership ladder. The most important attribute to reach the top is the most basic one: Being an effective communicator.”

Cecere agrees that employers have a role to play. She concludes:

“For manufacturers and distributors, current training is typically left up to the individual or offered as part of a project. Only 18% of companies have a clear road map with a preset budget for supply chain leader training. This is problematic.
The answer lies in cross training, clear job definition with skill progression, and skill building.”

The long-term answer to the talent gap is to attract more people into the supply chain field. John Pattullo, the former CEO of CEVA Logistics, told Kulisch, “We’re in a war for talent. We want the very best people. I’m not sure we’ve put our best foot forward in terms of demonstrating what an exciting and vibrant industry this is.” Shay agrees that the battle for students is important and needs to start earlier. He writes:

“There are some general things that are [going to] have to happen for us to really get a handle on this issue, and one is a much earlier awareness of what supply chain is for students coming through our educational system right now. I know here in the United States, the Council for Supply Chain Management Professionals has begun some partnerships with high schools to help students understand that supply chain is a career. I know often here in Tennessee, we explained that to our sophomores and juniors, and they didn’t really understand even that the opportunity existed before really into their third year of university.”

Students also need to know that they will have to work hard if they enter the field. Brian Gibson, a professor of supply chain management at Auburn University, told Kulisch, “It’s not for everyone. I tell them early on, this is a 24/7, 365-day per year industry. And, yes, we work on holidays. And, yes, we work on weekends. You’ve got to be fair and you’ve to give them a path forward.” Failing to be honest with individuals entering the supply chain profession will only result in frustration, disappointment, and wasted time and resources. On the other hand, at a time when jobs are wanting in other sectors, there are good-paying careers to be had in the supply chain industry.