University programs aim to prepare leaders in logistics

Supply chain management jobs are diverse and vital to keeping goods moving

Auburn University students visit shipbuilder Austal USA in Mobile.

Alabama university business educators marvel at how supply chain management has come out of the shadows since the advent of the pandemic to get fuller recognition as a critical part of business strategy and an essential part of a working economy.

That’s helped boost enrollment in both supply chain management courses and degree programs, say educators, including Robert Glenn Richey Jr., Ph.D., Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business eminent scholar. Auburn’s Department of Supply Chain Management in the Harbert College of Business offers on-campus and online options from undergraduate minor to Ph.D. “The major currently is the highest paid for Auburn graduates with undergraduates earning $60,000 per year on average for their first job,” he says.

Supply chain management jobs — both domestic and international — are diverse, ranging from sales, including freight brokering, to positions in procurement, logistics and data analytics. “COVID brought a new awareness to the importance of supply chain management and more job creation,” Richey says.

Because the pandemic spurred on shortages of consumer and other goods, the media began reporting on supply chain problems on a regular basis and showed memorable images such as container ships backed up off the coast of Southern California. Soon “supply chain” became a common term, says Jennifer Pettitt, assistant dean of the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Business, which offers an online master’s degree and certificate program. “Even my children began talking about the supply chain,” she says.

Previously the average person might know about marketing, branding, accounting, finance and investments, but had little awareness of supply chain management, says University of South Alabama’s Alvin Williams, Ph.D, interim dean of the Mitchell College of Business. “The supply chain was an afterthought, totally behind the scenes until the pandemic,” he says. “Now young people are being inspired to major in supply chain management because they want to help make things better.”

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Companies not only are adding supply chain management positions, they are encouraging their supply chain staff members to get additional training or degrees. “About 70% of those who work in supply chain management have had no specific education in it,” Richey says. “A degree is valued today because of all the tools and technology needed in the field.”

Richey, Pettitt and Williams believe the demand for supply chain management education will continue to grow. “Our undergraduate program is relatively new,” Williams says. “But our location as a port and distribution hub gives us significant support from our business community. We are in the process of creating a supply chain advisory board as we look at where our program needs to go from here.”

Part of the challenge and opportunity for university research and instruction is that supply chain management strategies are evolving post-pandemic. Emergency and risk management are receiving more focus, educators say. Instead of keeping inventories low for “just in time” efficiencies, many businesses are keeping larger inventories of safety stock “just in case” of future supply chain disruptions, says Richey, who also serves as research director for Auburn’s Center for Supply Chain Innovation. “The old rules have been thrown out and new technologies are developing super rapidly,” he says.

In addition, companies are hedging their bets on their suppliers. Instead of opting for one, least expensive supplier, often in China, they are adding a second supplier, perhaps in Latin America, and a third supplier in the United States. “There’s a risk of having all your eggs in one basket,” Williams says. “Businesses used to have four or five suppliers but that was reduced down to one or two to create efficiencies and to save money. Now the corporate risk model is that it’s too risky to have few suppliers.”

The new emphasis on smarter supply chain management is good news for employment opportunities, Pettitt says. “There is a growing demand for individuals who can bring a strategic perspective to supply chain management and navigate the complexities of global supply chains,” she says. “Companies have to manage their inventory while also coordinating with suppliers and distributors, all while responding to disruptions.”

Here’s a closer look at supply chain management programs offered at three universities across the state.

Auburn University

The supply chain management program at Auburn University is one of the top ranked in the country and offers a full range of undergraduate and graduate offerings, including master’s level certificates that can be combined for a master’s degree.

Auburn’s program has by far the largest student enrollment in the state. In addition to a handful of Ph.D. students, including three lieutenant colonels, Auburn currently has about 80 students in its master’s degree and certificate program, 550 in the undergraduate major and 180 in the minor, Richey says. “Student participation was already growing — then jumped after the pandemic began,” he says.

Almost every supply chain management graduate is able to find a job, Richey says, thanks in part to Auburn hosting two supply chain job fairs a year with more than 70 companies. “Students participate in paid internships with 70% receiving job offers from those internships,” he says.

The program’s history began in the 1970s when the emphasis at Auburn was transportation. Later other supply chain management areas were added and a department created thanks to a generous endowment made by Raymond Harbert, Richey says. “The pandemic brought new attention to supply chain management, but Auburn already was ahead of the game,” he says.

While Richey appreciates the higher profile the media has given to supply chain management, he wishes reporting would better portray the supply chain as a multi-faceted system. “When there’s a supply chain problem we need to talk about where specifically the problem lies. Is it in manufacturing, raw materials, transportation, retail technology, or something else?”

University of Alabama in Huntsville

Highly ranked among the nation’s online supply chain management programs, the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s master’s degree and certificate program got its start in the fall of 2015. Graduate certificates can be combined to complete a master’s degree and the college also offers an MBA with a concentration in supply chain management.

Currently 50 students, most of whom are working professionals attending part-time, are enrolled, Pettitt says. “Supply chain management is one of our most popular graduate programs,” she says. “Students are learning through doing. They participate in hands-on, practical projects where they can take what they have learned back to their company to provide immediate, positive contributions.”

The major was created to meet the workforce needs of the Huntsville metropolitan area, which includes Fortune 500 companies as well as defense and aerospace organizations, Pettitt says. “In designing the program, we wanted to accommodate working professionals through flexible scheduling and fully online delivery,” she says.

But the well-respected program also has drawn students outside of North Alabama, including 19% enrolled this semester from other parts of Alabama and 20% from other states. Local and visiting students are able to meet with faculty on campus, Pettitt says. “The program, although online, also allows students to build relationships with faculty and other students through the learning program, Zoom, calls and emails,” she says. “Students collaborate on projects and form lasting relationships with their peers. A number of former students reach out to faculty members even after graduation.”

Job fairs help University of South Alabama students connect with potential internships and employers.

University of South Alabama

Until about four years ago, the business college at Mobile’s University of South Alabama had no degree in supply chain management. It was available only as a concentration for those majoring in marketing, says Williams, who in addition to being interim dean is the chair of marketing and quantitative methods.

Williams created the undergraduate supply chain and logistics management (SCLM) degree program, which has grown to 20 students now majoring in the discipline in addition to others minoring in it. “The minor is open to any major,” he says. “Someone in an engineering-related area might be interested in the minor, for instance. It could make the graduate more marketable.”

The SCLM program has already attracted an adjunct faculty member from global shipbuilder Austal, a vice president who also has a Ph.D. in supply chain management. “The program is more or less in its infancy,” he says. “We have full-time and adjunct faculty members and are in the process of adding more faculty and courses.”

The business school requires at least one internship, but encourages students to complete two or three to help them gain experience and become more employable. Many internship opportunities are available, Williams says. “Mobile is uniquely situated,” he says “It’s a supply chain center with the port, rail system and interstate. Baldwin County is a mega distribution center.”

Kathy Hagood is a Homewood-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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