It’s graduation season, so the hunt for critical supply chain talent is more vigorous than ever. We may be known for ensuring we can make and move “stuff,” but ultimately supply chains are human. In a white paper on “How reinventing the supply chain can transform the planner role,” consulting firm EY cites their research that lack of the right supply chain talent is the second highest challenge to meeting supply chain goals. So as you prepare to onboard new supply chain talent, are you ready to answer the questions they will have?
When classes went online last year, we immediately offered to help professors with virtual guest lectures. Pivoting to virtual and recasting curriculum to remain relevant in a pandemic wasn’t easy, so in the last year we have spoken to more than 3000 students in multiple countries. Students listened with high interest and engagement, because as Dave Alberts, partner of the the global management consultancy Argon & Co., has proclaimed, “the new supply chain is sexy.” Each class is different, but three themes emerged in student questions.
Do you know where you are going?
As semesters unfolded, students saw course syllabi come to life in news headlines. It’s one thing to read an assigned article on the bullwhip effect; it’s another to encounter it repeatedly in your daily life. Decades-old case studies seemed stale, so students wanted to know how real supply chains have dealt with the pandemic and what their response bodes for future. They asked many intelligent questions in light of the times, such as the role of change management in the now-accelerating digital transformation or whether practices like lean would die and ecommerce persist.
Students want to know that your company understands the trends and challenges that were already reshaping supply chains and has a vision for how to address them. They are paying attention to whether you were agile and innovative in the current crisis or if you were lost. And to them, the future of supply chain also includes the future of the world. Sustainability matters to these graduates, and how companies are tackling supply chain sustainability was a frequent topic. These Generation Z graduates are strengthening an existing trend – 50% of millennials surveyed in an APICS report cited a strong corporate environmental responsibility program as a key factor in choosing an employer.
Will you equip me for the journey?
As the first true digital natives, these graduates will drive digital transformation, as their sophisticated questions made clear. They are fascinated by technology like AI but also assume its ubiquity. They can’t fathom that the spreadsheets used for homework assignments on toy problems still run the supply chains of many large corporations. Smartphones have led them to expect connected applications with beautiful user interfaces and access to a wide range of capabilities. But given the proliferation of ERP systems due to M&A and the endurance of legacy systems in supply chain, this will not be the world many will meet. The millennials who precede them have already discovered this, with 34% in the APICS report citing the “lack of needed resources or technology systems” as the second most frustrating part of their job.
These young people embrace, rather than fear, technology. If AI can automate mundane tasks to reduce the tediousness of their jobs, they will be all for it. Working in silos and batch mode, tossing spreadsheets over the (fire)wall, will not compute. A generation accustomed to adopting the latest technology on social media, they want platforms with built-in communication for group collaboration and instant results of queries. Are you ready to demonstrate that your company will give them the tools and technology they need to focus on the complex, higher-order tasks they crave?
How can I build a career in supply chain?
Careers were the third theme to their questions – how to get a job, a day in the life of a supply chain professional, skills needed to progress. As they graduate into the job market, generations ahead of them are retiring. According to joint APICS and Supply Chain Management Review research, the average supply chain manager in the US is a 48-year-old male, with 60% over 45 and 30% over 55. We face a supply chain talent stockout in the US, but similarly in the United Kingdom, the number of postings for supply chain roles are 219% higher than other sectors but attract fewer applicants.
Yet the profile of supply chain has never been higher, as the excited questions we heard confirm. Those entering the field are more diverse – the 2021 MHI Annual Industry Report found that women make up only 15% of the supply chain talent over 55, but 56% of those 18-24 entering the profession. Talent may be attracted to the field, but are you ready to retain and develop them?
Because in the APICS survey of millennials, 36% ranked cited the lack of a clear career path in supply chain as their top frustration. Students who are digital natives won’t be satisfied growing in a legacy place – they want to build a path into an ever more digital future. For exactly this reason, when biopharmaceutical company Ipsen did a skills inventory of their supply chain talent, they carefully benchmarked needs against a more digital point five years ahead. To close the skills gap and develop the needed capabilities, the company offers a mix of internal and external training and education programs. Talent developed is more likely to be talent retained.
Students were eager for us to translate textbook scenarios to working life. After all, what attracts many to supply chain is the varied roles and the exciting impact they can have, even early in their career. Pedro Noriega of Procter & Gamble praised a young hire for his impact in the wake of a high-profile natural disaster the company faced: “That kid really saved the day during hurricane.” Retaining talent also means giving them these kinds of meaningful and interesting opportunities.
Supply chains are human
The most efficient and agile supply chains powered by machine intelligence still depend on human intelligence. Supply chains move product and materials, and technology can improve the processes underlying this work, but at the end of the day humans provide the links in the chain. To ensure you have the supply chain talent you need, be ready to answer the questions of the incoming humans. Where are you going? Will you equip me for the journey? How can I build a career in supply chain? And then celebrate their successes along the way so they will build that career at your company.
Polly Mitchell-Guthrie is the VP of Industry Outreach and Thought Leadership at Kinaxis, the leader in empowering people to make confident supply chain decisions. Previously she served in roles as director of Analytical Consulting Services at the University of North Carolina Health Care System, senior manager of the Advanced Analytics Customer Liaison Group in SAS’ Research and Development Division, and Director of the SAS Global Academic Program.
Mitchell-Guthrie has an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also received her BA in political science as a Morehead Scholar. She has been active in many roles within INFORMS (the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences), including serving as the chair and vice chair of the Analytics Certification Board and secretary of the Analytics Society.