A Farm System for Supply Chain and Logistics: Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders

It’s hard to believe, with all the snow still covering our lawns and fields, that Little League season will soon begin. I am coaching again this year, and like every year, the season will begin with a group of kids, some who have played baseball before and others who are completely new to the game, that will run out with excitement onto the field and toss, catch, swing, and slide, until weeks later they are truly playing as a team, each kid a better and more knowledgeable baseball player than they were at the start.

Out there on those community fields, with parents and siblings cheering on the sidelines, is where the love of baseball begins. And for a few lucky and talented kids, it is where their journey to the Big Leagues takes off.

All of this got me thinking: When does the love of supply chain and logistics begin? Where does (or should) the journey to a career in the industry take off?

Unlike baseball, there is no farm system for supply chain and logistics.

Sure, there are a number of universities (but certainly not enough) with supply chain and logistics programs, and many employers recruit from these schools. To continue with the baseball analogy, if employers are the Big Leagues, then universities are Triple A. But there’s nothing else — no AA or A divisions where young students can explore their interest in the field and begin developing their knowledge and skills in balancing supply with demand, in making tradeoff decisions between inventory and transportation costs, in resolving issues and exploring opportunities with suppliers and customers, in using software applications like TMS and WMS, and so on.

How did you get to the Big Leagues of supply chain management? I am willing to bet that most of you didn’t even know this field existed until years after you graduated from college.

Take me and my friend Yumiko Kato from Sony Electronics as examples (Yumiko presented at our “Beyond the Perfect Order Metric” seminar last month). We both graduated with degrees in materials science engineering and began our careers at Motorola designing and building semiconductors. Twenty years later, through various twists and turns, employers and job titles, we find ourselves immersed in supply chain and logistics.

I certainly wouldn’t change anything in how I got here, but I also recognize that in order to attract the best and brightest to this industry, we have to pave a straighter path, and it has to begin at the high school level.

Supply Chain in High School

How can we create greater awareness, interest, and excitement about supply chain and logistics among high school students, as well as teachers and guidance counselors?

I’ve been asking folks in the industry this question for a couple of years and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and ideas many people have about this topic. But not surprising, this enthusiasm is often tempered with numerous reasons and excuses of why doing anything at the high school level will fail or take too long to implement.

But all you need is one reason why developing this first level of a farm system is worth a try, and here is mine: I have four young kids and as I think about what jobs will be available to them in the future, what jobs will continue to play an important role in economic development around the world, what jobs will be more valued tomorrow than today, it is clear to me that there are few careers more promising than a career in supply chain and logistics.

Of course, to develop a successful farm system, all levels have to align and build from each other. If high schools are the A division, then community colleges are AA, and this level is also very underdeveloped. Why not offer a two-year degree program, for example, for young adults to enter the field as transportation analysts? Earning a four-year degree from a handful of prestigious universities should not be the only path to getting into this industry. And even existing university programs can be improved, particularly in providing undergraduate students with hands-on experience using supply chain software tools. (Plenty of opportunities for improvement also exist at the graduate and MBA levels, but that’s a whole separate discussion).

Getting back to high schools, what can we do and how do we begin? I have plenty of ideas and I’m sure many of you do too. Let’s get together, not only to share our ideas, but also take some action. If you’re interested in helping develop the next generation of supply chain and logistics leaders, send me an email. I’ll bring the Gatorade and chewing gum.

And like I tell my Little League kids, we don’t need to swing for the fences to win the game. We can score all the runs we need one base hit at a time. We just have to step up to the plate.