Where Will All the Workers Come From?

I bet when you were in high school you had a burning ambition to be a warehouse manager. No? I know, you wanted to be a logistics coordinator. No? Oh I have it, you wanted to be a forklift driver in a big warehouse. That isn't right either, huh?

Me neither. In high school, I thought I'd be the dashing international reporter, so handsome that I would have to beat the women back with a stick. Oh well, that was a pretty good fantasy. The last thing I ever imagined was that I would get involved in something called “supply chain.” Heck, in the 1970s this industry wasn’t called “supply chain;” it was “physical distribution.” I was in my early twenties when the mother of a good friend of mine, a woman named Victoria, said I would do really well in “logistics.” I had to go look that word up in the dictionary. I did not rush out to get a job in a warehouse, but a few years after, I found myself behind the controls of a forklift. True to Victoria’s prediction, I had ended up in logistics.

I’ll wager that many of you did not plan a career in supply chain or logistics. If you are like me, you followed a long and winding road to get to where you are today. Some of us started working in a warehouse to earn our way through college. Some learned to drive a truck. Others started working the supply room in a factory. Some started loading freight on an LTL dock, or on the flight line at the local airport. Maybe you started in unrelated corporate departments or careers and “found” the supply chain. I started unloading trucks and taking inventory in a very large lumber yard. But we all started in the “belly of the beast” of supply chain, thinking it was a step in the direction of something more.

If you work 25 years in this industry, you get the pleasure of working with some very talented logisticians and supply chain managers—and some not so talented. In my management roles, I was constantly on the lookout for new recruits, and would look within the industry and outside it. Funny, out of all of those individuals, I can think of only one person who deliberately started out in a supply chain position, as a customs clearance clerk. While he was in high school, one of his father’s friends suggested that working for a customs brokerage could lead to a good career. In this individual’s case it did, since he is now the global logistics manager for a fairly large American retailer.

How many other people in our industry were guided early into pursuing a career in logistics and supply chain management? I think that very few people in leadership roles of supply chain management today started out with a supply chain career in mind. There wasn’t some older person at a party saying “I have one word for you—logistics.”

The question of how supply chain managers are “born” occurred to me after I read a column in Transport Times last summer. The columnist lamented that too few university graduates were focused on the transportation industry. The column’s slant was that since the colleges and universities were not creating enough “transportation” graduates, the transportation industry’s ability to grow was somewhat stunted due to the lack of educated managers. Of course, I had an opinion about this. I wrote that the first business of universities is not to generate graduates for industry but to provide students with the illusion of education and give the alumni enough prestige to generate more funding for the University proper. Not all colleges or universities operate this way, but the “first” customers the majority serve are the alumni and the students; not industry, the real consumer of the university’s product.

Thinking back over the times I searched for recent college graduates to fill entry-level positions I have come to the conclusion that the universities do not wholly own the failure. More and more schools are offering degree programs in supply chain management, logistics management, and transportation. Look at the course catalogs of major and minor universities and you will see an explosion of logistics and supply chain programs. Starting from a handful of schools, it does not take a very large absolute number to create a huge increase in offerings, but more and more universities are still offering programs.

There is a better supply of educational opportunities for students to pursue. The schools employ talented faculty who know their subject matter. They have some backing from industry. Scholarship funds are available to bring that dream of education a bit closer.

So, why are there so few entry-level graduates in the supply chain field? Could it be that there is not enough student interest?

Change your perspective! Let's step back and make ourselves younger. Imagine that you are a high school senior. Are you thinking of what you want to study in school? You're certainly not thinking of what classes you're taking in college. You're focused on graduation, a car, your date this Friday. You're focused on just getting into a college, and how you are going to afford it. Maybe you sit down with a career counselor and they suggest you look at something called supply chain.

"Supply chain? What's that?"

“It has something to do with warehousing, trucking, and inventory management,” says the guidance counselor, in a tone that does not make it sound very exciting.

“No thanks. I want to be a lawyer, doctor, accountant, art director, rich businessperson, whatever. I got to pay for those college loans!”

Now, imagine that you are the parent of that high school student. Johnny or Sally comes home all excited and announces to you that they are going to pursue a career in “supply chain management.”

“Supply chain? What's that?” Your son or daughter answers that it has something to do with warehousing and trucking and railroads, and you sit back and think about what a warehouse is. A warehouse is a dark place. It’s dirty in a warehouse. Big burly men named “Burt” or “Jack” work in warehouses, not smart college graduates. You start to suggest that perhaps they should be looking at some other career path, perhaps a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, art director, or rich businessperson, whatever. “Look,” you say, “you need a job that will pay for those college loans.”

Does our industry have an image problem?

If you are reading this article, you probably already work in the supply chain industry. You know that a modern warehouse or distribution center is not a dark, dirty place filled with big, burly men. You know that some of the coolest management technology is used in distribution. You know that most DCs are staffed mostly by women, who work in a nice, bright environment that is pretty darn clean. We know that the popular perception is wrong and obsolete. But parents don't know that, guidance counselors don't know that, and the students don't know that.

So riddle me this; how do we change this impression?

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