How to Build a Better Supply Chain

Recruiting supply chain talent should be at the top of your to-do list for 2011.

I’ve been writing about "supply chain" for a long time, but I have to admit that I still tend to cringe whenever I see those words appear in the popular media. The core concepts of supply chain management date back at least to the late 1950s, and the words themselves were coined more than 30 years ago, and yet to some late-comers, supply chain is thought of as just one or two steps up from a fad. An unusually long-lasting fad, true, but a fad nonetheless.

I used to get excited when I’d see a mention of the supply chain in a major newsstand publication, but lately I find myself hoping I can get at least a few paragraphs into the article without rolling my eyes. Take this recent headline, for example: "2011’s hottest job you never thought of" (from Fortune magazine). As you’ve probably guessed, the hottest job is supply chain manager. And, as you’ve also probably guessed, the author wasted no time at all in trotting out the tired cliché that logistics is "a non-sexy field centered on boring, low-paid warehouse work."

However, the good news that came out of the article is that supply chain managers—in all their non-sexy, boring glory—are in hot demand right now. If the Fortune writer has her facts right, there are apparently openings for "thousands" of supply chain jobs, and the article points to a survey (from the National Association of Colleges and Employers) suggesting that nearly half of all U.S. companies plan to hire logistics graduates in 2011. So there could be a lot of fresh young (and maybe not-so-young) faces applying to you for jobs this year, armed with a supply chain degree or certificate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that these new grads will have the right skills to improve your operations. As Bill McBeath, chief research officer with ChainLink Research, notes, too many supply chain courses today focus on the theoretical rather than the real world. In a recent survey on the current state of supply chain education, ChainLink discovered that respondents tend to feel lukewarm about the quality of the programs.

"Are existing supply chain education programs covering the right subjects and with good content? Sort of," McBeath observes, citing survey results. "Do they have great instructors? Not really. And are courses convenient to attend and reasonably priced? No!"

When ChainLink asked companies what their most important education needs were, the top response was supply chain strategy and leadership, followed by risk management and then demand management. "Supply chain professionals [need] to be able to speak the language of the CEO and the board," McBeath points out, "translating supply chain improvements into financial and strategic terms."

Jason Breault, managing director of TopGrading Solutions, a recruiting firm specializing in supply chain planning and procurement, has seen his client list grow recently "based on the fact that a lot of companies got caught off guard by the recession because they did not have a demand planning process in place. They realize the impact this has to the bottom line and are putting teams together to be better prepared for the recovery."

So how do you know if somebody has the supply chain skills your company needs and will be able to successfully tackle problems as they arise? Harry Joiner, an Atlanta-based executive recruiter, recommends asking a job candidate to describe a specific challenge he or she has confronted in a previous work situation. If the candidate is a good problem solver, they should be able to demonstrate an ability to: define the problem; define the objectives; generate alternatives; develop a detailed action plan; troubleshoot; communicate; and lastly, implement.

I’ve been saying this for so many years now that it’s become Blanchard’s Rule # 1 of Supply Chain Management: Top-performing companies have top-performing supply chain people working for them. There’s no shortcut; you absolutely need to have people on your staff who, like you, understand the crucial role that material handling and logistics play in your company’s operations. As the economy recovers, make sure you put the recruitment of supply chain talent at the top of your to-do list for 2011.

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