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The supply chain curriculum: How universities are preparing the next generation of leaders

More than other college programs, industry and academics go hand-in-hand with supply chain.

The supply chain management field is broad, so it’s understandably difficult to structure a collegiate undergraduate curriculum to cover everything an incoming hire should know prior to graduation.

Few students enter their undergraduate program knowing they want to specifically go into procurement, logistics or operations, the three main foci of the supply chain field. So how should university program administrators think about training the next generation of leaders, knowing that one student might end up in a large company focused on operations, whereas another will become a freight forwarder? And what lessons should veteran supply chain leaders learn from current academic departments?

Universities are continuing to tailor their programs based on industry input, especially from companies coming to campus to hire away newly minted grads. But to get what they want in a graduate, these companies are investing time and labor to consult with the schools and even provide executives to teach or help develop curriculums. One example of that partnership is a recent $2.75 million donation to University of Arkansas, funding the J.B. Hunt Innovation Center of Excellence to enhance their interdisciplinary supply chain program.

“Supply chain and logistics programs are maybe more so than other academic programs, very industry oriented and job opportunity oriented, especially at the undergraduate level,” says Brian Gibson, PhD, a supply chain management professor at Auburn University. And the buzz word now is “broad.”

Developing a broad curriculum

While some schools may focus more on operations, procurement or role types, “we’re trying to get our students a well-rounded understanding of the supply chain, and not limit ourselves to just one area,” Gibson told Supply Chain Dive. “More schools are going to a broader focus to appeal to a wider variety of students, and to satisfy an increasing number of employers that come to them."

"It’s more about being able to serve a wide variety of employers, not just a select few,” he adds. In a rapidly shifting economy, it’s dangerous to tailor a curriculum to one industry, one employer or one software package, as the market can quickly change.

Michigan State University (MSU) is also going for a balanced approach. They focus on logistics, operations and procurement, which Judy Jacobs, MSU’s Director of the Corporate and Student Relations Office says is unique in the university setting, as few schools offer all three equally. She adds that other universities tend to focus more on operations management or procurement and call that supply chain management.

Companies, however, are moving to integrate supply chain activities. MSU’s discussion with industry leaders revealed that they’d rather have employees broadly trained in all areas, and they could custom train employees in specific roles.

Industry and academics are developing programs together

While MSU’s supply chain program spans 50 years under various program names, they’ve always had informal relationships with area industry executives. They’re now formalizing these discussions, creating a council of 38 companies, due to the increased demand for supply chain talent and the expansion in breadth of information students need to learn. David J. Closs, PhD, Department Chair of the MSU Department of Supply Chain Management says he’s talking with council members about the businesses’ needs, and soliciting advice on how to tweak or expand the curriculum.


“This is like the real world, in that the answer can’t be found by looking into the data or looking at the case."

Brian Gibson

Executive Director, Center for Supply Chain Innovation, Auburn University


Some of these companies help develop and teach courses as well, a significant investment of time and expertise. One example is a government-focused negotiating and contracting class. “[The company] essentially wrote an introductory book for it,” says Closs, and provided a procurement expert and a lawyer to teach the course, as they have specific and deeper expertise in this area than the MSU supply chain faculty.

MSU is currently running two such courses and are developing a third, which are deep dives into a topic, and are one credit electives. Closs asks the companies if the significant commitment is worth it. “They say ‘absolutely yes,’” he told Supply Chain Dive. Companies get corporate visibility, access to students, and they learn more about what drives today’s students.

Figure out what employers are looking for

This continual discussion between industry and academia includes what skills the companies want from their new hires. Companies are asking for students who are more analytical, and with stronger technology skills.

That means students who can analyze data using software tools. They want students who can walk in, evaluate and assess problems and develop solutions using critical thinking skills. The schools then need to determine the best way to teach these skills.

Auburn teaches them in two ways: case studies and internships. Employers bring the school real and fabricated cases, so the students can dig into these problems in the classroom, using supply chain simulation software. Or they’ll create a classroom competition, where the students come up with solutions without having all the needed data.

“This is like the real world, in that the answer can’t be found by looking into the data or looking at the case,” Gibson says. “They have to really be creative and think more like a manager and less like a student.”

What the internship teaches

Internships should be a major part of the supply chain student’s experience, even if it’s not required for graduation.

Auburn requires professional development experience, typically a three to six month internship. They tell employers that the intern shouldn’t just be shadowing others, but to give them a company problem they haven’t had time to solve. While the student will spend time shadowing and learning about supply chain on the job, they’ll also work on their project and make a presentation to an executive team at the internship completion.


“It used to be that this was HR’s worry. Now you have executives in supply chain who have to address that concern.”

Judy Jacobs

Director, Corporate and Student Relations Office, MSU


“They figure out how to work on a team, to ask questions, to use all the resources out there and develop their own resources, just like they would as an entry level manager,” Gibson says. Companies are increasingly seeing the value in this approach, and as a recruiting tool.

While MSU doesn’t require internships, almost all the students complete one or more during college. “With the demand out there, anyone who wants one can get one, unless they’re lazy,” Closs says. “In order for them to get hired, companies pretty much require that they have an internship.” The school works with industry to develop and match up internships.

The connection between curriculum and the employer base

The schools are looking to prepare students academically and practically for roles with their employer base. As industries are clamoring for supply chain hires, that partnership prepares students to get jobs in local industries and needed roles.

Auburn has three primary channels they fill for employers: analysts, operations (distribution and transportation) and a growing number in procurement. “Those employment needs really drive the curriculum, the types of cases we pick and the types of internships we get for our students,” Gibson says.

Large companies tend to hire MSU graduates, so their curriculum is more focused on those needs. “That’s our faculty experience as well,” Closs says. The industries hiring from MSU are mostly automotive, petrochemical, electronics, fast-moving consumer goods, aeronautics and healthcare.

What industry veterans can learn from undergraduate curricula

Industry veterans can learn about their own personal career needs as well as corporate needs from what universities are doing with their supply chain programs.

A college education and affiliated training will get supply chain managers through their first job, maybe a second or third. But to move up, they have to keep themselves current through advanced education, whether a master’s degree or certificate/certification programs.

Closs says that ambitious supply chain managers need to worry about more than just their own job function, instead understanding their company’s entire end-to-end supply chain. They have to know be cognizant of their suppliers to their customers, which is increasingly complex and challenging in today’s environment.

From the employer side, hiring new grads is a different ball game than in the past. “It used to be that this was HR’s worry,” says Jacobs. “Now you have executives in supply chain who have to address that concern.” She sees that on campus, with executives showing up to recruit, instead of the human resource folks. With more jobs than graduates, employers need to rethink their talent recruiting strategies.

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