Executive Briefings

The Secret Society of Supply Chain Management

Hey there, supply-chain executive - did you know that the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't recognize what you do as an "occupation"?

Thumb through the agency's Occupational Outlook Handbook and you'll find a number of related jobs - "water transportation occupations," "logisticians," "supply managers" and the like. But nowhere is there a category for the individual who oversees a supply chain. Which, oddly enough, just about every company has.

The problem is largely one of definition. What exactly is a "supply chain manager"? The title contains dozens of variations. It can mean anyone from a chief supply chain officer to a mid-manager in charge of procurement, demand planning, scheduling or transportation. Depending on one's years of experience, salaries can range from $45,000 to well over $200,000 a year.

Clearly the jobs are out there. "Logistics" made U.S. News & World Report's list of the "50 Best Careers of 2010." But for all the attention being paid to global supply chains, in a time of intense focus on security, controlling inventories and meeting customer demand, the discipline continues to suffer from a low public profile.

"Supply chain management has an identity crisis," according to Mike Hadley, senior manager of materials management for military aircraft with Boeing Defense, Space & Security. He believes the problem goes all the way back to the meaning of the words "supply chain." There are plenty of definitions out there, and no lack of industry organizations with their own spin on the term: The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, APICS, Institute for Supply Management and Supply Chain Council, to name some of the major ones. Still, said Hadley, "there's no common industry definition of supply-chain management."

The problem is of more than academic interest. It's a big reason why many companies today are hurting for talent in their supply-chain organizations, and why relatively few college students view the discipline as a viable career choice. To put it bluntly, business and academia are doing a lousy job of promoting this vital profession. It's for good reason that Gartner analyst Kevin O'Marah calls the talent gap "the worst supply chain in the world."

Boeing's Hadley is part of an effort to address the oversight: the Supply Chain Talent Academic Initiative. SCTAI is a non-profit consortium of businesses, schools and professional associations. The group has a threefold mission: to identify the requirements for supply-chain talent, to help educational institutions build programs to meet those requirements, and to market the supply-chain profession as a "career of choice."

It starts at the high-school level, and maybe even before. In a recent online survey conducted by Qualtrics of 435 supply-chain majors at 20 universities, only 8 percent said they learned about supply-chain management from a high-school counselor. Another 19 percent got the word from college career advisers, while 18 percent heard it from a family member, 21 percent from friends or work colleagues, and 34 percent from professors. It's no surprise that so many supply-chain professionals talk about "falling into" their jobs. The structure for informing young people of the possibilities at an early stage just isn't in place.

Too bad for them. According to the Qualtrics study, the number-one reason why students switched their majors to supply-chain management was the wide availability of fulfilling internships with major companies. A good number of those opportunities lead to permanent jobs. "Once people know about [supply-chain management], it's self-marketing," said Nick Little, assistant director of executive development programs at Michigan State University's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management.

About 250 schools in the U.S. claim to offer some kind of supply-chain program, many of them excellent. But they vary widely in their emphases, and they don't always tailor curriculums to the needs of employers. "We need more ready-to-use graduates that we don't have to retrain," Hadley said at the annual conference of APICS in Las Vegas.

Who's responsible for the skills gap? Hadley placed a good part of the blame on the shoulders of business. "We did a very poor job of ... giving universities our requirements," he said. That's one failing that the SCTAI is aiming to correct.

I wish them luck. Supply-chain executives have been moaning for years about public ignorance of their profession. From time to time, an organization like CSCMP will launch an awareness effort in the primary or secondary schools, but it never seems to take. Things could be different this time around, though. With the imminent retirement of millions of Baby Boomers, companies face an alarming shortage of bodies to fill key positions across the supply chain. In fact, the crisis has already begun. According to Hadley, demand for supply-chain professionals is exceeding supply by a ratio of six to one. With the national unemployment rate hovering at 9.6 percent, here's one area where job-seekers could find themselves in a seller's market. So let's get the word out.

- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain

Comment on this article

Hey there, supply-chain executive - did you know that the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't recognize what you do as an "occupation"?

Thumb through the agency's Occupational Outlook Handbook and you'll find a number of related jobs - "water transportation occupations," "logisticians," "supply managers" and the like. But nowhere is there a category for the individual who oversees a supply chain. Which, oddly enough, just about every company has.

The problem is largely one of definition. What exactly is a "supply chain manager"? The title contains dozens of variations. It can mean anyone from a chief supply chain officer to a mid-manager in charge of procurement, demand planning, scheduling or transportation. Depending on one's years of experience, salaries can range from $45,000 to well over $200,000 a year.

Clearly the jobs are out there. "Logistics" made U.S. News & World Report's list of the "50 Best Careers of 2010." But for all the attention being paid to global supply chains, in a time of intense focus on security, controlling inventories and meeting customer demand, the discipline continues to suffer from a low public profile.

"Supply chain management has an identity crisis," according to Mike Hadley, senior manager of materials management for military aircraft with Boeing Defense, Space & Security. He believes the problem goes all the way back to the meaning of the words "supply chain." There are plenty of definitions out there, and no lack of industry organizations with their own spin on the term: The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, APICS, Institute for Supply Management and Supply Chain Council, to name some of the major ones. Still, said Hadley, "there's no common industry definition of supply-chain management."

The problem is of more than academic interest. It's a big reason why many companies today are hurting for talent in their supply-chain organizations, and why relatively few college students view the discipline as a viable career choice. To put it bluntly, business and academia are doing a lousy job of promoting this vital profession. It's for good reason that Gartner analyst Kevin O'Marah calls the talent gap "the worst supply chain in the world."

Boeing's Hadley is part of an effort to address the oversight: the Supply Chain Talent Academic Initiative. SCTAI is a non-profit consortium of businesses, schools and professional associations. The group has a threefold mission: to identify the requirements for supply-chain talent, to help educational institutions build programs to meet those requirements, and to market the supply-chain profession as a "career of choice."

It starts at the high-school level, and maybe even before. In a recent online survey conducted by Qualtrics of 435 supply-chain majors at 20 universities, only 8 percent said they learned about supply-chain management from a high-school counselor. Another 19 percent got the word from college career advisers, while 18 percent heard it from a family member, 21 percent from friends or work colleagues, and 34 percent from professors. It's no surprise that so many supply-chain professionals talk about "falling into" their jobs. The structure for informing young people of the possibilities at an early stage just isn't in place.

Too bad for them. According to the Qualtrics study, the number-one reason why students switched their majors to supply-chain management was the wide availability of fulfilling internships with major companies. A good number of those opportunities lead to permanent jobs. "Once people know about [supply-chain management], it's self-marketing," said Nick Little, assistant director of executive development programs at Michigan State University's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management.

About 250 schools in the U.S. claim to offer some kind of supply-chain program, many of them excellent. But they vary widely in their emphases, and they don't always tailor curriculums to the needs of employers. "We need more ready-to-use graduates that we don't have to retrain," Hadley said at the annual conference of APICS in Las Vegas.

Who's responsible for the skills gap? Hadley placed a good part of the blame on the shoulders of business. "We did a very poor job of ... giving universities our requirements," he said. That's one failing that the SCTAI is aiming to correct.

I wish them luck. Supply-chain executives have been moaning for years about public ignorance of their profession. From time to time, an organization like CSCMP will launch an awareness effort in the primary or secondary schools, but it never seems to take. Things could be different this time around, though. With the imminent retirement of millions of Baby Boomers, companies face an alarming shortage of bodies to fill key positions across the supply chain. In fact, the crisis has already begun. According to Hadley, demand for supply-chain professionals is exceeding supply by a ratio of six to one. With the national unemployment rate hovering at 9.6 percent, here's one area where job-seekers could find themselves in a seller's market. So let's get the word out.

- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain

Comment on this article