The Signal March 14, 2023

Skills 2030: Is Going Straight to Work in Supply Chain a Viable Alternative to College?

Technology is driving massive productivity gains in some parts of the economy, but not others – especially education. Could this be an opportunity for CSCOs looking to build future-proof organizations by hiring, developing, and inspiring a killer skills profile for the 2020s?

Kevin O'Marah Avatar
Kevin O'Marah

Famous tech venture capitalist Marc Andreesen recently quipped, “We’re heading into a world where a flat-screen TV that covers your entire wall costs $100 and a 4-year degree costs $1M”. The takeaway for an ambitious 18-year-old should be obvious: skip college and get a job in supply chain management.  

Andreesen’s point was that technology is driving massive productivity gains in some parts of the economy (i.e., manufacturing, retail, etc.) but not others, especially education. Buried in the headline, however, is a golden opportunity for Chief Supply Chain Officers looking to build future-proof organizations by hiring, developing, and inspiring a killer skills profile for the 2020s and beyond. 

Six Must Have Skills for 2030 Supply Chains  

Post-COVID, and in keeping with the long-term push to digitize and decarbonize supply chains, classical skills seen in purchasing, production and transportation aren’t enough. Six new skills that draw on a mix of vocational experience, analytical training, and interpersonal learning look set to change the game for functional roles in sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, and planning. These six include: 

  1. 1

    Communication: Understanding an audience, telling compelling stories, and engaging people outside of supply chain. This is key to maximizing the value of digital innovation and influencing behavior beyond your organization for better ESG performance.

  2. 2

    Decision Mechanics: Framing problems, finding data, making and assessing decisions. This is essential to build agility, reduce waste and accelerate organizational and system learning on the path to zero carbon.

  3. 3

    System Science: Bringing specific technical knowledge to supply chain design and measurement. This is critical to making smart bets on new materials, new methods, and above all, accurate measurement of environmental and health impacts of supply chains.

  4. 4

    Machine Whispering: Understanding and tuning mechanical systems in automated supply chains. This will make digital innovation in plants, distribution systems, and field assets faster and more financially reliable.

  5. 5

    Diversity Engineering: Optimizing teams based on intentionally blending diverse perspectives in organization design. This will widen the talent net, improve listening and learning behaviors and help big organizations weather change.

  6. 6

    Product Management: Owning supply chain tech development projects from concept through launch, and into continuous improvement. This will allow CSCO’s to “fire their IT department” and build tech that suits the work of Zero100 supply chains.

Of course, very little of this future skillset really exists as a set of job description points. An analysis we conducted of LinkedIn job posts found only 3.8% of all “supply chain” listings included most of the essential terms baked into these six. 

Three Tactics for Building 2030 Skills  

For supply chain leaders and their HR partners this means that in addition to hiring the right people to fit your culture, you’ll also need to use a few basic tactics to develop these skills within the functional roles of your organization. Three specific tactics emerged in our research which depend more on intelligently using what you already have than on buying or building ambitious new training programs. 

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    Teach Empathy: Force a process of right brain thinking onto your organization so that supply chain people can learn to connect with and influence non-supply chain people. Engaging your internal PR/Communications teams to teach storytelling is an easy first step and rotational assignments also help. Role modeling the behavior by visiting sites in person cements the principle, but the real key is recognizing that end-to-end supply chains touch everyone.

  2. 2

    Grow Your Own Citizen Technologists: Since you can’t hire enough freshly minted data scientists, let alone justify hiring a team of earth scientists, maybe you should grow them yourself. Organizational design is the key to sharing specialist knowledge. “Centers of Excellence” are a common proxy for this org design as a start, and tuition support for specialized education will help speed things up as you create and perhaps even certify an army of citizen data scientists.

  3. 3

    Build a Bridge from Blue Collar to White Collar: Why hire when you can promote from within? 10-20% of those already working in your organization can develop the leadership and managerial capabilities needed for Zero100 supply chains. Existing management development programs can be extended to bridge plant and DC jobs into headquarters roles and cultivate this talent pipeline.

Make a Million Dollars or Spend a Million Dollars – You Choose  

Back to Andreesen’s point: “technology whips through [unregulated sectors of the economy], pushing down prices and raising quality every year”, he says. If this is true, and especially if we’re still on the front end of a long-term trend, why would a kid, or her parents, want to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree when it’s not only possible, but arguably better to start an exciting, meaningful career in supply chain by working in an Amazon fulfillment center, Wal-Mart store, or New Balance shoe factory?  

The technology, machinery, and processes being developed in these operations are all advancing fast due both to machine learning as an accelerant, and persistent labor shortages in the US and Europe which are forcing the issue. That means new hires get to see, use, and even help develop the tech as it rolls out. The experience they get will not only look good on a CV but will also make them better students for any future training or targeted education they take as they grow.  

The better deal for all concerned may be some combination of vocational secondary school, part time community college and a mashup of APICS certification, six sigma training, and company-specific skill-building programs based on the three tactics described above. We may look back in ten years and think how smart it was to say no thanks to the prestigious ivy-clad college who “accepted” you, and instead take an entry-level job in supply chain and start getting paid.  

CSCO’s Can Lead the Way  

The revolution in higher education that some (hello Prof G!) have argued is waaaaay overdue won’t come from within. It seems clear that the university establishment is slow at best to embrace change. The sanctity of tenure makes it nearly impossible to seriously disrupt existing models of university degree programs. Plus, with scarcity enforced in the admissions process, prestige will be hard to unseat.  

The unlock may be as simple as celebrating new hires in plants, warehouses, and delivery systems the way we do college admits. With brand names as prestigious as Colgate Palmolive, John Deere and Microsoft, doesn’t it seem reasonable that kids could be inspired to get A’s in school so they could “get in” to supply chain instead of Harvard?  

If you build it, they will come.