Supply Chain Education: Building the Skill Set That Lands Job

University faculty members describe the materials that make up the ideal supply chain education.

People who want to launch careers in supply chain management can choose from a rich array of academic programs at all levels of study; just look at the Education Resource Guide (page 46). But what exactly should schools cover to ensure students gain the knowledge and skill it takes to manage today’s supply chain challenges?

The perfect supply chain curriculum operates in three dimensions, says Nicholas Petruzzi, professor of supply chain management and chair of the Department of Supply Chain and Information Systems at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business. It helps students 1) master a body of knowledge, 2) develop both hard and soft skills, and 3) learn to apply those skills.

We asked faculty from four supply chain programs to share their thoughts on the ideal supply chain curriculum. Here’s what they told us.

Mastery of the Basics

In Penn State’s undergraduate supply chain program, mastering knowledge starts with the same foundational courses in business and economics that all students take at Smeal. Then, of course, supply chain majors take courses specific to that field.

“Our curriculum is designed around the notion of source, make, and deliver,” says Petruzzi. “It’s all about the ‘puts’—inputs, outputs, and throughputs.”

Students spend two years in courses that focus on areas such as new product development, sourcing, manufacturing strategy, inventory planning, and all the other functions attached to the product life cycle.

Like their counterparts at Penn State, supply chain majors in the undergraduate or full-time MBA program at Michigan State University (MSU) take both core business courses and courses focused on supply chain management. The supply chain curriculum starts with a broad introductory class, followed by drill-down courses in logistics, operations management, and procurement, plus electives in topics such as project management, negotiation, and transportation.

MSU’s core business curriculum also emphasizes information technology, teaching students to use Microsoft Excel, Access, and the programming language Python. “This training makes sure students get the tools they need, along with statistics and quantitative research, to learn how to use data to make better decisions,” says Judith Whipple, professor of supply chain management at MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business.

In addition, students get an introduction to supply chain-specific software, such as the SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which integrates many management functions in one solution.

“Students learn about the theory of integration and use the software to see how we communicate data across the firm,” Whipple says. Two MSU-developed supply chain simulations allow students to design supply chains and see how their decisions affect operations throughout the company.

Grounding in Statistics

The ideal supply chain curriculum is a topic fresh on the minds of educators at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which debuted a new MS in supply chain and operations management in fall 2018.

A student who starts work toward this degree must come with some grounding in statistics, says Matthew Liotine, clinical associate professor of information and decision sciences, who developed the curriculum and now directs the program at the university’s College of Business Administration.

Knowledge of Microsoft Excel is also a prerequisite. Within the masters program, students take four required courses—Data and Prescriptive Analytics, Operations Management, Supply Chain Management, and a capstone course called Applied Supply Chain Strategy and Practice.

The Supply Chain Management course covers all the functional domains of supply chain. “For example, it’s managing inventory, managing logistics, knowing when to offer promotions and how promotions should be structured, and pricing policies,” Liotine says. Since students come to the program from a diverse array of backgrounds, it’s important to make sure they all have a fundamental understanding of the field.

For Julie Niederhoff, associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, the ideal supply chain curriculum starts with a focus on core business functions, especially marketing and finance. “It’s difficult to make a supply chain decision and understand its impact on the organization if you don’t have some sense of how the supply chain affects finance,” she says.

Within the supply chain discipline itself, students need to learn the foundational concepts of management science and cover topics such as sourcing, selling, logistics, inventory control, quality management, and product management.

“But to understand how all of those topics fit together, a good curriculum also links out into some foundational-level understanding of how those decisions affect marketing, finance, and risk exposure—and corporate social responsibility and sustainability, which are becoming increasingly important,” Niederhoff says.

Skill Development

Two of the hottest topics among students these days are sustainability and data analytics, which come up in a variety of classes. Students need to consider both sustainability and costs among the tradeoffs that influence decisions. “Living in the information age, we have a lot more to work with to help make sound decisions,” says Petruzzi.

To help students hone their analytical skills, faculty focus not only on how to use mathematical models and information technology, but also how to think through the ambiguous situations the real world presents.

“The perfect curriculum is loaded with depth,” says Petruzzi. “That might mean students are required to write papers or complete problem sets—anything that engages all of the complex reasoning skills we keep advancing over the four years.”

For their electives at UIC, students choose from a menu of courses. One example is Enterprise Operations and Supply Chain Systems, which focuses on the use of ERP systems. “Students have to learn where data comes from and what systems facilitate the emergence of that data,” Liotine says.

A course called Managing Service Operations looks at what it takes to run operations in a company that sells services rather than goods, while a course called Quality Control and Lean Process Management teaches Six Sigma principles and potentially qualifies students for a Six Sigma green belt.

Students who want more depth in certain areas may take courses elsewhere in the business school in subjects such as accounting, electronic marketing and e-commerce, risk management, and data mining.

The MS program at Syracuse also employs electives to broaden students’ understanding of supply chain issues. In the past, electives have concentrated on tactical, internal activities through the lens of operations or logistics.

“There’s a traditional set of electives, which are focused on customer satisfaction, quality, keeping costs down—all the issues we tend to think about in the interface between marketing and supply chain,” Niederhoff says. “But there’s also a growing awareness that we need to keep risks low and think about how supply chain decisions are affecting risk exposure from currency fluctuation, political issues, and other events.”

Students in Syracuse’s MS in supply chain management program usually study finance and marketing in courses taught by Whitman faculty outside the supply chain program. But at another institution, if the courses in those topics didn’t cover the material a supply chain professional requires, the program might develop a specialized class.

Electives may also address corporate social responsibility, global sustainability, and how companies use their resources. “That comes down to new technologies such as drones, automation, self-driving vehicles, or other options, as well as data,” Niederhoff says.

Seeking Counsel

Supply chain management is a quickly evolving discipline, and an academic program needs to keep students up to date. MSU works closely with a corporate supply chain council composed of practicing supply chain professionals to inform faculty on the latest industry issues and aid in curriculum development. In addition, MSU often designs short, one-credit classes to cover highly specific, timely topics, with industry experts frequently serving as guest lecturers. A class on compliance and global supply chains, for example, may bring in individuals who work in customs and compliance.

Students also need to hone their communications and people skills. Class assignments let them practice written and oral arguments while group projects let them perform as team members and as leaders.

And while courses in a supply chain program must teach how to use information technology and mathematical models, students also need to develop managerial insights. “Metaphorically, we’re learning how a hammer and a screwdriver work,” Niederhoff says. “But it’s much more important for students to learn when to use them—the right tool for the right situation.”

Real-World Application

In the third dimension, students apply their knowledge and skills in the real world. Penn State’s Center for Supply Chain Research connects the program with companies that ask students to tackle actual supply chain problems—for example, recommending whether to invest in a particular technology. A student team might pursue one of those challenges for course credit or as an extracurricular experience and provide the company with a final report or presentation.

MSU uses a capstone course to integrate all of a student’s newly gained knowledge and skills. “The capstone class is predominately case-based,” says Whipple. “Students are pulling from all the different courses they’ve had, even non-supply chain courses.”

The similar capstone class at UIC challenges students to work on real problems for real companies in the Chicago area. One recent class worked with Hub Group to develop pricing for rail shipments.

“Hub Group had all the data and wanted somebody to recluster the origins and destinations so they could get an easier way to come up with tariffs,” Liotine says.”We gave that to some students to work on.”

Another company asked students to help identify a better way to manage less-than-truckload shipments.

Besides giving students the chance to apply their skills, these service projects may also help them forge valuable connections, spilling over into opportunities for internships or summer jobs.

Supply chain majors who want to jumpstart their entry into the global economy can take advantage of MSU’s study abroad program, including overseas courses designed for business majors. Many of those courses take students to visit companies in the host country, and MSU is in the process of developing additional supply chain-specific overseas programs.

Beyond the classroom, MSU students can raise their supply chain skills through the student-run Supply Chain Management Association, which hosts guest speakers, sponsors corporate tours, and holds leadership retreats, and the majority of students graduate with at least one internship under their belts. UIC is also planning to add a study abroad component to its graduate program, with international projects of one or two weeks at foreign companies.

Practical Experience

Like the other faculty who spoke with us, Niederhoff acknowledges the value of study abroad. Also, like the others, she stresses the value of internships or other practical experience, including volunteer jobs, all of which teach the importance of the human factor in real world projects.

“It’s hard to convey to students how much negotiation with people is part of the supply chain,” Niederhoff says. “To be a good operations and supply chain manager or member of the team means developing that flexibility, awareness, and people skills, not just technical skills.”

By combining all of these factors, institutions can set up their students for supply chain success.