A Farm System for Supply Chain and Logistics: Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders

It’s hard to believe, with all the snow still covering our lawns and fields, that Little League season will soon begin. I am coaching again this year, and like every year, the season will begin with a group of kids, some who have played baseball before and others who are completely new to the game, that will run out with excitement onto the field and toss, catch, swing, and slide, until weeks later they are truly playing as a team, each kid a better and more knowledgeable baseball player than they were at the start.

Out there on those community fields, with parents and siblings cheering on the sidelines, is where the love of baseball begins. And for a few lucky and talented kids, it is where their journey to the Big Leagues takes off.

All of this got me thinking: When does the love of supply chain and logistics begin? Where does (or should) the journey to a career in the industry take off?

Unlike baseball, there is no farm system for supply chain and logistics.

Sure, there are a number of universities (but certainly not enough) with supply chain and logistics programs, and many employers recruit from these schools. To continue with the baseball analogy, if employers are the Big Leagues, then universities are Triple A. But there’s nothing else–no AA or A divisions where young students can explore their interest in the field and begin developing their knowledge and skills in balancing supply with demand, in making tradeoff decisions between inventory and transportation costs, in resolving issues and exploring opportunities with suppliers and customers, in using software applications like TMS and WMS, and so on.

How did you get to the Big Leagues of supply chain management? I am willing to bet that most of you didn’t even know this field existed until years after you graduated from college.

Take me and my friend Yumiko Kato from Sony Electronics as examples (Yumiko presented at our “Beyond the Perfect Order Metric” seminar last month). We both graduated with degrees in materials science engineering and began our careers at Motorola designing and building semiconductors. Twenty years later, through various twists and turns, employers and job titles, we find ourselves immersed in supply chain and logistics.

I certainly wouldn’t change anything in how I got here, but I also recognize that in order to attract the best and brightest to this industry, we have to pave a straighter path, and it has to begin at the high school level.

How can we create greater awareness, interest, and excitement about supply chain and logistics among high school students, as well as teachers and guidance counselors?

I’ve been asking folks in the industry this question for a couple of years and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and ideas many people have about this topic. But not surprising, this enthusiasm is often tempered with numerous reasons and excuses of why doing anything at the high school level will fail or take too long to implement.

But all you need is one reason why developing this first level of a farm system is worth a try, and here is mine: I have four young kids and as I think about what jobs will be available to them in the future, what jobs will continue to play an important role in economic development around the world, what jobs will be more valued tomorrow than today, it is clear to me that there are few careers more promising than a career in supply chain and logistics.

Of course, to develop a successful farm system, all levels have to align and build from each other. If high schools are the A division, then community colleges are AA, and this level is also very underdeveloped. Why not offer a two-year degree program, for example, for young adults to enter the field as transportation analysts? Earning a four-year degree from a handful of prestigious universities should not be the only path to getting into this industry. And even existing university programs can be improved, particularly in providing undergraduate students with hands-on experience using supply chain software tools. (Plenty of opportunities for improvement also exist at the graduate and MBA levels, but that’s a whole separate discussion).

Getting back to high schools, what can we do and how do we begin? I have plenty of ideas and I’m sure many of you do too. Let’s get together, not only to share our ideas, but also to take some action. If you’re interested in helping develop the next generation of supply chain and logistics leaders, send me an email at adrian@logisticsviewpoints.com. I’ll bring the Gatorade and chewing gum.

And like I tell my Little League kids, we don’t need to swing for the fences to win the game. We can score all the runs we need one base hit at a time. We just have to step up to the plate.


  1. Hi Adrian, proposing a Supply Chain farm system sounds like a good idea. I spent 25+ years in SC/Logistics/Distribution, etc and to this day I can’t remember what brought me there. Along with a farm system, we should think about offering a mentoring process where we could round up senior talent who could offer advice and counsel similar to pitching and batting coaches to use your metaphor.

    Regards, Ron

  2. Adrian

    I have discussed this with a number of people over the years including some supply chain professors who are also seeking to win over high school students. I don’t think it is a good idea, but I do have an alternative.

    The vast majority of kids in high school have no idea what they want to do and I think that is a good thing. A 17-year old should be open to options but realistic about what can and cannot be achieved (most won’t play pro sports.) Trying to sell them on supply chain careers before they enter college almost seems like we are taking advantage of a vulnerable mind. In addition, a broad set of core courses is essential to maximizing a young persons’ chance of being successful in any career as well as becoming an interesting person. College freshmen and sophomores should be taking math, English, philosophy, history, economics, foreign languages, etc. They don’t need specialization at that point.

    To me the time to win them over is as sophomores or at the junior/community colleges. Students who have a good educational foundation are better prepared to think about careers that will let them excel at areas where they have both strength and interest. Some of the best high school students attend community colleges because they can’t afford the price of the major universities and want to knock out there core curriculum at a more reasonable total cost. If the strong supply chain universities target getting the best community college students to complete their degrees in our field, I think everyone wins. The second avenue is to go after the sophomores who are doing well in math, computer science, economics, foreign languages, communications, etc. who have a set of skills and interests that will serve them well in our profession. We should convince them that supply chain offers them a chance to apply the skills they enjoy to real world problems and to make a good living along the way.

    I majored in business as an undergraduate but really liked my math, economics, and computer science courses. When I went to Indiana in1977 to get an MBA, Professor Clay Whybark sold me on logistics as the best way to apply all of what I enjoyed. It worked out pretty well, and when my daughter was looking at schools we visited Professor Whybark who by then was teaching at the UNC Chapel Hill. She decided to stick with biology and is now finishing her third year of medical school at Tufts.

    That is my 2 cents worth.


  3. Tom,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this topic. You raise some excellent points, which I generally agree with. Like you, I believe that we’re missing a big opportunity at the community college level too, and that more work and attention needs to be applied there.

    At the high school level, I agree with you that immersing students in a formal supply chain course and pointing them down that career path might be too much, too soon. But I also believe that creating some high-level awareness about the industry in a fun and engaging way, not only for students but also for teachers and guidance counselors, is worth doing. Instead of a formal course, perhaps there are other ways, such as online or via a special program/project/initiative, for us to raise and answer some simple questions that students ought to consider: Ever wonder what all those trucks on the roads are doing? Ever wonder why that product you buy is sometimes on the shelf and sometimes out of stock? Ever wonder about all the steps required to make sure that iPad 2 is ready for sale by a specific date?

    Again, thanks for sharing your two cents.


  4. Tom,

    I have read and understand what you are getting at and as a student who not a decade ago was at the secondary stage, I would have enjoyed a taste of what supply chain management is. Not in those specific terms but in light of transportation and how goods move from one point to the next.

    In a country where the best sprinters are produced, speaking from experience I can say with confidence that exposure at the secondary level works. When students see direct application and a mingling of subjects they like, they are more drawn to it as they are learning indirectly. As a math teacher and one who is interested in Logistics, I can tell you that the best way to have students do well at something is to show them what they can do with it.

    I am not saying to go in depth with logistics and all its high level cognitive demands, but just give them a taste at their late high school years (Junior & Senior) and allow them to choose as they step into a world of work and study.

    For countries that have a logistics hub in the making (Jamaica), it would be a great idea as well. Just as how we are training students in other skill areas (Plumbers, Carpenters, Mechanics), the same can be done with Logistics and elements (Supply Chain Management) associated with it.

    I would also like to use this medium as a focus group to fuel and explore a study on this idea.