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The ideal candidate for a career in supply chain today must possess a mastery of numbers as well as the ability to communicate with people both in and outside the organization, says Matthew Liotine, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Q: In an economy with 3.9-percent unemployment, what are the big issues in supply chain today?
Liotine: Many companies are coming to us looking for people with supply-chain experience, or whom they want to groom for the field. A big challenge for us at the university is trying to mold these people for careers in supply chain. We've put together a Masters of Science in Operations and Supply Chain and are inaugurating it this year, so we hope to address staffing needs in the field.
Q: How aware are your students of careers in supply chain?
Liotine: In the undergraduate community, they don't know what supply chain is. Sometimes I wish the industry would try to change its name, because it doesn't have the pizzazz of other fields like accounting or finance. So we have plant some seeds in the undergraduate and graduate community, to make them aware of what this field is, and how important supply chain is today to making businesses successful.
What’s interesting about the supply-chain field is how much it has transformed in the last five years through technology. There's so much automation going on. We're talking about forward-looking technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and blockchain. These types of new technologies are now starting to catch the eye of students. And they’re saying, "I want to get involved in this."
Q: What do businesses tell you about how good a job you’re doing preparing students for careers in the industry?
Liotine: We get feedback all the time. Our Center for Supply Chain has a board of directors that represents supply-chain executives from major companies. They provide significant input into our Masters of Science and Supply Chain program. What they're looking for today is students who wear two hats – those with domain knowledge of the field, and also understand technology, can analyze data and use systems.
In the end, it's all about making wise decisions. Which suppliers and markets should I choose? Where should I open up my next distribution center? Which technologies should I choose, and how do I bring them in?
Q: How do you enable both analytical and relationship skills within the same individual?
Liotine: We get students that have great resumes, but they all look the same on paper. What makes the difference is their people skills – how well they can communicate, solve problems and collaborate. So in our curriculum, we have team projects. We have students meeting with companies to solve problems, which allows them to interact with people within that company, and also with other companies. They learn how to manage themselves as a team, because it's all about teamwork.
Q: To what extent is technology obviating the need for human beings at all, because of automation? What do you tell your students about the role of people in the supply chain in the years ahead?
Liotine: I tell them that all this technology is wonderful, but it's just an enabler for new kinds of solutions. Technology allows you to form new business and supply-chain models, but you are the solution. You have to know how to use the technology. You need people to tell the robots what to do, and to develop processes and business models to drive the technology. That really elevates the level of technical people in the supply chain. Not only do they have to deal with the technology, they also have to understand business processes and how to use the technology to solve them.
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