Building the Supply Chain Talent Pool

With demand for fresh supply chain talent at an all-time high, leading business schools have geared up to meet industry’s requirements

By Editorial Staff

The economic downturn and sluggish recovery has not dampened demand for top-tier supply chain talent, says Associate Professor William Verdini, chair of the Supply Chain Management Department at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. "Demand for supply chain professionals is going up," Verdini says, "because senior management is recognizing that supply chain is a strategic part of the organization."

Top-tier supply chain programs at schools like ASU's W. P. Carey School and at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business are helping meet the demand for supply chain talent by arming undergraduate and graduate students with skill sets that match companies' requirements. In doing so, they are preparing the next generation of supply chain executives to meet the challenge of increasingly collaborative, technologically enabled and global value chains.

Changing Skill Sets

The continued high demand for fresh supply chain talent today stands in contrast to the previous recession in 1999-2000, according to Gene Tyworth, chair of the Supply Chain & Information Systems Department and Professor of Supply Chain Management at Smeal. During the last downturn, Tyworth says that recruitment among supply chain graduates fell significantly. But this time around the number of recruiting companies actually has increased. "We've seen the demand for supply chain graduates remain surprisingly strong for the last three years," Tyworth says.

Eileen McCulloch, director of corporate relations for the Department of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School of Business, notes that companies are looking for different skill sets today than in the past. "In the last recession, we saw companies come looking for supply chain recruits that could help drive additional cost savings. Now companies are looking for recruits that can bring savings to the table but that also can add new value to the company," McCulloch says.

She adds that supply chain executives evaluating recruits today often look for what could be called "high emotional intelligence" — the ability to understand oneself accurately, manage one's emotions, understand the emotions of others, and manage multiple relationships among diverse people. This includes influencing through written and oral skills, team collaboration as both a member and leader, and the ability to appreciate business strategy, yet grasp how to create implementation plans and execute them. To foster these capabilities, all full-time W. P. Carey MBA students are required to participate in a leadership class in their first year, learning skills to persuade others, communicate effectively, lead change, manage teams, cope with uncertainty and act ethically. The capstone course, in the second and third trimesters of the second year for SCM students, focuses on project management, and an elective leadership class also is available for second-year students.

Cross-functional Perspective

Tyworth says that companies also are looking for supply chain recruits that can bring a cross-functional perspective to the table. "We're true believers in collaboration, and we've been preaching cross-functional perspectives since the 1980s and 1990s," the professor says, "and that's an absolutely essential skill that companies and recruiters look for." Supply chain students at Smeal learn about the challenges to cross-functional collaboration, including through case studies that demonstrate the difficulties and how to address those issues.

A key point, Tyworth says, is gaining an appreciation for the impact that decisions taken within one function will have across the rest of the business. That's crucial to help "sell" the value of supply chain across other functions in the organization, a capability that also ranks high on the list of desirable skills for supply chain leaders. Tyworth says that the curriculum at Smeal incorporates opportunities for students to develop those skills, both through classroom exercises as well as through internships.

Of course, undergraduate supply chain programs must balance the need for cross-functional perspective with the requirement to prepare students to start their career within one of the functional silos. "When the students get their first jobs, they're not running supply chains," says the W. P. Carey School's Verdini. "They're in purchasing or demand planning or logistics or other operations."


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Schools like W. P. Carey and Smeal have adopted the Supply Chain Council's Supply Chain Operations Reference (SCOR) model as the foundation for their curricula so that students see the larger picture of the value chain even as they gain the skills necessary to kick off their careers. That's especially important today, adds Professor Phillip Carter, Harold E. Fearon Eminent Scholar Chair of Purchasing Management at the W. P. Carey School and executive director of CAPS Research. "People need to understand the basics of the business and of whichever function they're going into," Carter says, "so that they can start making a contribution very quickly."

Analytical Mindset, Global View

Technology naturally plays a critical role in managing supply chains today, and Joseph Carter, Avnet Professor of Supply Chain Management at the W. P. Carey School, notes that the ASU program offers a grounding in business-specific tools. The school also teaches students how to leverage the data that these systems can produce. "We provide very good training in how to interface with enterprise systems to get data transformed into information so they can make better decisions," Carter says.

In addition, providing an international perspective is an integral part of a sound supply chain curriculum today, says Joseph Carter. "One of our prime directives is not just to provide students with technical knowledge but to help them understand that regardless of which company they go to, they're going to be operating in a global marketplace," Carter says. He points out that the SCM program at ASU has a high international participation, particularly at the MBA level, adding culturally diverse perspectives to the student experience.

Tyworth, with Smeal, suggests that students coming into SCM programs today may actually be well prepared to operate in a global environment, where the ability to work in "virtual teams" will be an advantage. "The students coming into the program are used to working in a much more connected way," he emphasizes, pointing to the variety of social networking tools that students are integrating into their daily lives in a way that wasn't possible even a couple years ago. The challenge for business, Tyworth adds, will be to figure out how to leverage their inherently more connected recruits in way that provides the greatest benefit for the business.