Logistics Managers Are Hungry for Knowledge: Let's Feed Them

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 800,000 people work as supervisors or at higher levels of management in the warehousing, transportation, and supply chain industries. That 800,000 does not include some who work in supply chain or transportation roles in allied industries, like retail. Of those 800,000 people, 12 percent have a four-year college degree, 40 percent have some college, and the rest have either a high school diploma or a GED. Of the 96,000 college-educated people in the supply chain industry, about 30 percent have a degree in business. Another 30 percent have a degree in engineering, 5 percent have a degree in a direct supply chain course of study, and the rest have whatever—maybe English Lit or History.

A lot of people are surprised by those statistics. Well, people outside the supply chain industry are surprised. Those of us from the supply chain industry are not so surprised. Supervisors and managers come up through the ranks, starting as order pickers, dock hands, or truck drivers. The smart and ambitious ones show some leadership skills, pick up technical skills along the way through on-the-job training, and get promoted.

Another source of demographic data is the Warehouse Education and Resource Council (WERC) Salary and Ware Reports. These are surveys of member warehouse operations, and some of the questions asked in the survey are about education. Now, remember that WERC is a professional organization, and represents the top echelon of warehouse operations. In the 2010 report, 58 percent of VP-level warehouse leaders report that they have a four-year degree, as do 61 percent of the directors, 50 percent of the general managers, 34 percent of the operations managers and only 20 percent of the warehouse supervisors.

Consider this:  the trend toward the four-year degree in logistics is a recent one. Two decades ago, there were fewer layers in logistics organizations, and fewer senior managers held sheepskins.

And, that is an opportunity.

I'm one of those guys who in the mid-980s got an engineering/management degree with the intention of becoming a manufacturing engineer, then a plant manager, moving on up to vice president of manufacturing, and finally into the CEO’s chair. Seduced along the way into a warehouse, I found myself in a supervisory role in a distribution center. I never intended to stay for long, thinking I would go into manufacturing. In the mid-'80s, the percentage of college-educated people in the industry was more like 15 percent, and I was in a great position to bring skills and tools to the profession. Of the 41 managers in supervisory positions, only six had a four-year degree—about 14 percent. My education helped me in my career, but so did my ambition and drive. I had been exposed to all facets of logistics within the first five years. Recognizing my curiosity, management gave me many opportunities to push the envelope. The world was my oyster, and I was quickly promoted. Talk about being a hungry cat in a coop full of baby chicks!

Twenty-five years later, I find myself still in logistics and supply chain, having a ball. I have noticed in the past 25 years, that the pool of ignorance in the industry is wide and deep. Don’t confuse ignorance with stupidity. The industry is filled with some very smart people who never went to college, but honed their skills on the whetstone of work experience. I'm one of those crazies who reads business books like others read novels. While I stood out on the warehouse floor, supervising the interns I hired to do the grunt work, I did research to understand the relationship between inventory and demand, demand frequency and order size, and a whole host of other fun activities. I would think about and research things that would never cross the minds of most of the operations managers in the distribution centers.

I learned a great deal from my on-the-job training. I always thought I would go into education and at some point would teach college. But the more I work in the industry, the more I realize that what I know is needed more in the real world of the practitioner, and not in the academic world of the classroom.

The real need for supply chain and logistics education is in the workplace.

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