Need Logistics Talent? The Government’s Here to Help.

July 7, 2013
I thought parenthood was the world’s toughest job. Then I read the “supply chain technician” job description, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

I received an e-mail from the National Center for Supply Chain Technology Education (SCTE) last week. They're located at Norco College in Norco, Calif., and they want to fill your material handling and logistics talent gap--with some help from the National Science Foundation. The NSF created the SCTE in 2011, by means of a $3.5 million grant.

The purpose of the SCTE's e-mail was to introduce a job function many employers may not know exists: supply chain technician. The SCTE implies that even if nobody actually holds this title yet, many soon will.

Attached to their e-mail was a report on the results of a phone survey of 624 businesses. In the introduction the SCTE claims that there are already 203,000 supply chain technicians working in the U.S. It admits, however, that the employers they surveyed have varying ideas of what a person with this title should be able to do. They also admit that the folks who put together the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification system never heard of this job title either.

The “Supply Chain Technician” job description the SCTE is working on encompasses four functional skills:  operate equipment, maintain equipment, direct maintenance and maintain systems. They chose these functions because they’re the skills a large percentage of the employers they surveyed ranked as “extremely important.”

The researchers also asked the companies in their survey what type of training or certifications they would like to have available for the Supply Chain Technicians at their locations. Half of the respondents said they didn’t know, or that they used vendors to support their supply chain technologies or to provide in-house training.

Who were these respondents?  They had warehouses and distribution centers. That was the main thing they had in common.  After that, their own job descriptions cover a pretty broad range of industries: manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, wholesale trade, agriculture and health care.

Nevertheless, the SCTE is confident that the demand for supply chain technicians among all industries will increase 30 percent nationwide in the next 24 months. But if you dig deeper into their survey results, you’ll learn that nearly 80% of the businesses they surveyed said they employ between 1 and 10 “Supply Chain Technicians,” 13% said they don’t have any and only 8% indicated they employ more than 10.  So going by these numbers, a 30 percent increase does not seem to represent a huge mandate for the SCT they describe.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice to have such a super hero, but it’s not super realistic. SCTE says supply chain technicians should be responsible for installing, operating, supporting, upgrading or maintaining the hardware, software, automated equipment and systems that are needed to support the supply chain. Their talents would encompass automated material handling equipment maintenance (including electronics, mechanics and pneumatics mastery), data management, and industrial communications.

Several employers I know who run a warehouse would be happy just to be able to find a job candidate who could put together a polite and grammatical sentence.

I’m not faulting the SCTE folks for thinking too big, but their problem is thinking too broad. There appear to be considerable mission gaps among the organizations they studied. 73% said they use inventory management systems, 58% use bar codes and only 45% have some kind of WMS. However, 32% said they have an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and the people conducting the survey didn’t ask if those ERPs have WMS functionality. As for automated material handling (conveyors, sensors, AS/RS, AGVs and robots), only about 21% of the respondents enjoy those conveniences.

The SCTE report makes several recommendations, but two are most noteworthy: colleges are advised to start building programs to prepare graduates for Supply Chain Technician jobs and certification agencies are encouraged to build programs around those functional skill areas mentioned: automated material handling maintenance, data management and industrial communications. 

I called George Walters, the SCTE’s executive director, to see if he really feels industry demand will result in a steady stream of supply chain technicians certified in all these skills entering the workforce in the next couple years. He said that he’s not completely in sync with the timing and the language of this initial e-mail campaign.

“This is a research project we were funded to do by the NSF, to say we’re getting a lot of industry people who say they want maintenance technicians to have this entirely new skill set,” he told me. “Maybe the story is that these industry people [who were surveyed] are asking for too much. We know that a lot of those skill sets they want are bachelor degree level and they want them via a two-year education program.  That’s not only what these companies want to see but it’s what the NSF wants to see. We’re merely the liaison to put those desires together.”

He also admitted that they didn’t really drill down past the titles of the people who took the surveys in the first place. Many could have been H.R. people with big wish lists for talent.

During our phone conversation Mr. Walters indicated he shared several of the concerns we raised about this initial report, and that he is fighting these battles too. However, he is optimistic about the next phase of research which entails working more directly with 40 or 50 of the larger, global companies they surveyed to set more realistic goals for this supply chain technician they all seem to want.

That’s good, because as I was digesting their initial report I was trying to envision whether the supply chain technician the NSF wants to create would be a blue collar or white collar job. My conclusion is that it will be neither. The uniform will actually require a cape and a big red S on the chest.