STEM Programs can Help Close the Supply Chain Talent Gap

“A supply chain talent perfect storm could be in the offing.” At Least, that is the conclusion reached by Kusumal Ruamsook, a Research Associate, and Christopher Craighead, Director of Research at the Center for Supply Chain Research at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business & Management.[1] They don’t predict when the perfect storm will hit, but most analysts are predicting it will come sooner than many companies expect. They are not alone in their assessment. The Strategic Sourcerer writes, “We have spoken at length about the impending skills gap and talent shortage trends that have already started to impact a wealth of industries and regions around the globe, and we are certainly not the only ones urging precautionary measures to readers who want to avoid the negative impacts of these events.”[2] The article notes that a number of skills are required of a good supply chain professional, but the discussion tends to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills whenever talent gaps are mentioned.

Ruamsook and Craighead report, “Estimated demand for supply chain professionals exceeds supply by a ratio of six to one.” Filling this talent gap won’t be easy, they assert, because, in addition to the increased demand for talent, three other major trends are straining the supply chain talent pool. The first trend involves retiring Baby Boomers. “More than 60 million Baby Boomers will leave the workforce by 2025,” they write, “but only 40 million new bodies will enter, creating a ‘hollowed-out middle’ and even senior-level management positions.” The second trend involves supply chain profession dynamics. They explain:

“As an industry, supply chain is evolving as a highly educated sector rich in ‘hard’ analytic skills. However, three out of four jobs in supply chain will change by 2015, suggesting that being rich in ‘hard’ skills is no longer sufficient. A set of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, leaderships, and cross-functional competencies essential for professional and organizational success in the 21st Century will continue to broaden and constantly evolve.”

The final trend affecting the supply chain talent pool identified by Ruamsook and Craighead involves higher education. “The shortfall of new business doctorates available for faculty employment is estimated at 2,500 by 2014. Of current full-time business faculty in the United States, only about 1 percent is in supply chain management/transportation/logistics field.” If those trends aren’t convincing enough to demonstrate that a perfect storm is brewing, Marsha Vacirca, Program Director for MercuryGate University, points out that the logistics industry growing at 22 percent annually.” To meet this challenge, she concludes, “The bottom line is that just having a higher education is no longer sufficient to be competitive in the market. You also need technology skills, knowledge, and experience, which employers greatly value. Educators are tasked with challenging the future workforce — that is, with creating a hands-on learning environment where students can harness and develop these technology skills, making sure that future logisticians are prepared and ready to take on the challenges of a demanding world and fickle economy.”[3]

The unfortunate truth is that there are no short-term solutions available for the supply chain talent gap and only a few methods that can help mitigate the shortage’s impact. One way, of course, is to automate some of the processes that are currently handled by humans. Cognitive computing solutions are emerging that can help companies do that and my company, Enterra Solutions®, would be happy to discuss some of those solutions with you. Long-terms solutions will undoubtedly include a combination of automation and skilled people. To ensure that the people required to meet the long-term challenge are available and equipped for the task, we need to start preparing them now — not just at the college level but much earlier. Robert J. Bowman, managing editor at SupplyChainBrain, discusses an outreach program that is doing just that.[4] The individuals who crafted the idea for the Supply Chain Management Outreach Program were Cheryl Dalsin, the Supply Chain Program Manager and Senior Engineer for Customer Fulfillment, Planning & Logistics at the Intel Corporation, and Judith M. Whipple, an associate professor of Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University. Bowman reports, “Dalsin wanted her two daughters, one of whom was starting the first grade, to have more opportunities for hands-on exposure to the sciences — and, more specifically, the supply chain. Drawing on a small team at Intel, she joined with some “liked-minded individuals” at Michigan State University, Arizona State University and MIT to create an in-class educational experience for students in that discipline.”

In the Abstract of a paper written for CSCMP, Dalsin and Whipple state that the purpose of their initiative was “to increase awareness of supply chain management as a field of study to pre-collegiate students. The overall goal of the Outreach program is to spark interest in supply chain management careers. This is particularly important given recent attention and efforts focused on talent development within the supply chain management discipline.” Dalsin told Bowman, she wanted the program “to spark an awareness of supply chain at an early age.” Bowman elaborates:

Supply Chain Management Outreach Program“The initial focus was on the lower grades, although the project’s ultimate goal was to extend through secondary school, and possibly into the first year of college. At the outset, the team came up with nine early-years units ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade, to be implemented at three participating charter schools in Tempe and Mesa, AZ. They would consist of five core activities: managing a lemonade stand, overseeing a just-in-time Lego assembly, forecasting pizza demand, crafting a Lean manufacturing strategy for paper airplanes, and working at Intel for a day. For the Intel visit, students would don clean room suits and experience how the company packages and ships product. At the end, they would fabricate ‘wafers’ – literally, cookies.”

As I have written before, I love this kind of hands-on, project-based approach to education. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live. Bowman continues:

“The in-class activities will serve as the basis for an educational ‘kit’ to be used at each grade level, complete with instructions and required materials. In addition, teachers and students fill out assessment forms that help program designers to determine the educational value, age-appropriateness and, not incidentally, degree of fun of the exercises at each grade level. The program ‘has spread like wildfire,’ says Dalsin. Multiple schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and California have signed on. Michigan State is using the Lego activity, guided by associate professor Judith M. Whipple, as part of its grandparents’ program, in addition to reaching out to local schools. Versions of the program are also underway in Vietnam, Malaysia and Ireland. The next step is to extend the outreach program to the high school and early college levels. In that phase, students will learn about the supply chain of a cell phone. Engaging in hands-on simulations, they’ll acquire an understanding of such critical factors as supplier location, production lead time, the insourcing-versus-outsourcing debate and the cost of having too much inventory on hand. They’ll cope with random demand signals as they labor to meet customer demand. The activities will be supplemented by information about career paths in supply-chain management. For all of the fun involved in the various exercises, the program has the serious goal of making students aware of a discipline that has flown under the radar at virtually every stage of K-12 education. Many students even enter business programs in universities without being aware of the existence of supply-chain management as a career.”

Bowman believes there are probably enough “graduate-level programs in supply chain, but the word has to be propagated all the way back to the youngest students.” I agree with him. Dalsin told Bowman that “the outreach program can play a key role in solving the talent gap that’s plaguing so many organizations today, as they search for individuals who possess the qualities, knowledge and experience needed to run global supply chains today. Step one is generating awareness at the earliest possible stage. Many such attempts have been made by educators and supply-chain professionals in the past. Let’s hope this one takes.” I couldn’t agree more.

Footnotes

[1] “Forecasting a Supply Chain Talent ‘Perfect Storm’,” Supply Chain 247, 20 January 2014.
[2] “More evidence that supply chain management matters,” The Strategic Sourcerer, 1 April 2015.
[3] “Preparing Tomorrow’s Supply Chain Leaders: The Importance of Technology Skills and Experience,” Talking Logistics, 31 March 2015.
[4] “Teaching Schoolkids About the Supply Chain,” SupplyChainBrain, 6 April 2015.

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