Expert Insight: Thinking Outside the Box
By David Schneider
Date: July 2, 2009

Supply Chain Perspective: A Career in Seed Crops or Supply Chain?

As the Need for Supply Chain and Logistics Workers Grows at All Levels, Can Universities and Market Meet the Demand? Do We Have an Image Problem?

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 was going to be the dashing international reporter, so handsome that I had to beat the women back with a stick. Oh well, that was a pretty good fantasy.  The last thing I ever imagined would be that I would get involved in something called “supply chain."  Heck, in the 1970’s, this industry wasn’t called “Supply Chain," it was “Physical Distribution."  I was in my early 20s and the mother of a good friend of mine said that I would do really well in “logistics."  I had to go look that word up in the dictionary.  I did not rush out and 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 ended up in logistics.

Let’s make a 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 a 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.

In 25 years in this industry (or in any industry), you get the pleasure of working with and meeting some very talented logisticians and supply-chain managers, and some of the “not so talented."  In my management roles, I was constantly on the lookout for new recruits to the “team," and would look inside the “industry” and outside.  Funny, out of all of those individuals, I can think of only one person that started out “on purpose” in a supply chain position as a customs clearance clerk. While in high school, a friend of his father suggested that working for a customs brokerage could lead to a good career. For this specific individual, 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 career in supply chain in their mind.  There wasn’t some “older” person at a party saying “the one word is ‘Logistics.'"

The question of how supply chain managers are “born” started to form in my mind after reading a column in Transport Times last summer. The columnist lamented about how universities were not generating enough graduates focused in the transportation industry. The column’s slant was that since the colleges and universities were not creating enough “transportation” graduates that the transportation industry was somewhat stunted in its abilities to grow because of 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 for the majority, the “first” customers that they serve are the alumni and the students; not industry, the real consumer of the university’s product.

Thinking back over the times that 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.  Go 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 of offerings, but still, more and more universities are offering programs.

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

Industry Image Problems?

Then, why are so few entry-level graduates being generated?  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?  Guaranteed, you're not thinking of what classes you're taking college, you're focused on your own graduation, the car, the date this Friday. You're focused on 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 with a tone that does not 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?" you ask. As your son (or daughter) answers that it has something to do with warehousing and trucking and railroads, 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 taking a tack 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 need a job that will pay for those college loans.”

Oh, does our industry have a 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 and dirty place filled with big burly men. You know that some of the coolest management technology is used in Distribution. You know the population inside most DCs is mostly women who work in a nice, bright environment that is pretty darn clean. We know that the classic stereotype 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?


Agree or disgree with Schneider's perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondent's name or company withheld.

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About the Author
David Schneider is founder and president of David K. Schneider & Company, a supply chain and logistics consulting firm. Prior to that, he was Director of Logistics for Pep Boys Auto and a consultant at Keough.

Schneider Says:

The question of how supply chain managers are “born” started to form in my mind after reading a column in Transport Times last summer. The columnist lamented about how universities were not generating enough graduates focused in the transportation industry.

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