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The Evolving Supply Chain Skills of the Workforce

Supply chain management is a career that perfectly matches the skill set of the Millennial generation—if they can be persuaded to pursue it.

Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to compare the changes that the current workforce is experiencing to the first time that human beings stood upright. This change certainly feels life-altering to employees who have gone from a world where intelligence resided in their own minds to now encountering and working directly with intelligence housed in machines.

“Robotics, Big Data manipulation, machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques are enabling machines to match or outperform humans in a range of work activities, including ones requiring cognitive capabilities,” explains Richard E. Crandall, a professor in the College of Business at Appalachian State University, in an article for APICS.

“These rapid advances also make it possible for workers to turn over the more analytical tasks to computers and move on to activities that require human intervention, such as resolving problems and managing change,” Crandall observes.

While that evolution in thinking, which includes a higher level of problem-solving, is admirable, many employees have spent the past few years diligently—and not without some difficulty—learning the technology required to do their jobs. Now they are not only being asked to give that over to the machines, but they have to learn yet more skills.

Training for the Future

“We are hearing from our corporate partners who are looking for talent, that the required skill sets have changed,” says Cheri Speier‐Pero, department chair, Supply Chain Management, with Michigan State University. “Where historically there was a strong emphasis on quantifiable capabilities, now it is the softer skills that are needed. Skills such as the ability to work well in teams and being innovative and creative when evaluating problems are at the top of their list.”

Innovation, creativity and communications are the skills on that next rung. Especially important is the ability to combine those three when communicating to management what the massive amount of data coming from these machines not only means, but what they are supposed to do about it.

“Employees need to have a broader-based perspective than they did in the past,” Speier‐Pero added. “So the challenge today is to find that person who is proficient at the technical level and can provide leadership. That can be hard to find.”

That sounds like an understatement given the fact the one study found the demand for supply chain professionals exceeds supply by six to one, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of jobs in logistics will grow by 26% between 2010 and 2020, according to Crandall.

A recent study by Deloitte bears out what Speier‐Pero is finding. When talking about talents that supply chain employees should have, 73% of respondents say it is extremely or very important to have technical competencies and even more, 79%, say leadership and professional competencies are extremely important.

Now the technical skills needed are those which enable supply chain professionals to tackle complex aspects of risk management or statistical modeling. Simultaneously leadership skills including problem solving, change management and talent development are required.

The Deloitte study inquired about the level of satisfaction companies currently have with their employees’ leadership skills. Only half of the companies thought that the top ability, which is to negotiate or collaborate with value chain partners, was present.

Looking at future skills, employees will need to sharpen their strategic thinking and problem-solving capabilities, which were the top two skills identified in the study.

But wait—there’s more. Other skills that are becoming more important are the ability to manage global/virtual teams, the ability to persuade and communicate effectively, and the skills to both lead and develop others.

The good news in all of this is that the largest generation of workers, the Millennials, have career preferences that exactly align with what is needed.

“Millennials are looking for challenging work and like being on teams,” says Speier‐Pero. In fact, she says feedback from employers who hire students from MSU’s program say they appreciate the student’s roll-up-their-sleeves attitude, coupled with their end-to-end worldview. They view things from a higher level.”

New View of Talent

Part of seeing things from a higher level is seeing things from a different perspective.

While leadership has for the most part had a singular view of the type of employees to bring up the ladder, they are now changing the rungs of that ladder. For example, the current ideal leader is a Type A person, who is outgoing and not afraid to speak their minds. Companies admire that trait.

In fact, a study from 2009 found that nearly 96% of all managers and executives are extroverts. But only half of the population are extroverts. What about the introverts? Isn’t there wisdom and talent going unnoticed?

Yes. According to a study conducted by Francesca Gino, associate professor at Harvard Business School, quiet bosses with proactive teams can be highly successful because introverted leaders carefully listen to what their followers have to say.

The idea of listening to the ideas of those who don’t push to the front of the room has cultural implications as well. There is a new phenomenon called the “bamboo ceiling,” which describes how Asian-Americans often stall in middle management and rarely make it to top leadership positions.

“We’ve been interested in why this bamboo ceiling exists, and we think it might be because many Asian-Americans value calm states and associate good leadership with those qualities,” points out Jeanne Tsai, who directs the Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford, in a paper on the subject. “But mainstream American culture associates good leadership with being excited and enthusiastic.”

Learning to understand how different cultures conduct business is an area that Speier‐Pero is working on in terms of developing students’ proficiencies. Students need to have a global perspective that includes inclusion and diversity, says Speier‐Pero. And this isn’t a future goal but something that is happening right now. “We see this diversity in our student population and it will benefit the businesses the students join as they can include a variety of perspectives when making decisions.”

This broad-based business inclusion has financial implications as well. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity at the executive level are 33% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile, according to a report from McKinsey.

Another push in training future supply chain leaders that MSU is working on is ethics in the workplace. In this particular area those working in the supply chain currently have and will continue to have a huge impact. Ethical sourcing is now part of how companies do business and there is a great deal of transparency in other aspects of the supply chain, such as labor conditions. This level of transparency is practically a requirement from customers who want to know how their products were produced before making a decision to buy.

It is for all of these reasons that Speier‐Pero feels that supply chain management is the ideal career for the younger generation. “You are touching the lifeblood of the organization. You are doing foundation work that is influencing how decisions are made.”

And the case can be made that supply chain professionals are moving up very quickly on the ladder of evolution that is needed to match the machines.

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