Too-great expectations?

By Chris Elliott | Supply Chain Quarterly

Many young supply chain professionals have unrealistic expectations about job requirements and career paths. Employers and educators must do a better job of communicating what skills and traits new hires will need in the real world. It has been obvious for some time that the field of supply chain management is facing a “talent gap.” By 2018, according to one prediction, 200,000 open supply chain jobs will lack qualified applicants.1 Even though the number of supply chain-focused certifications and programs offered by technical schools, colleges, and universities continues to increase, it’s possible that for every graduate of a supply chain degree program, there will be six open positions.2

Furthermore, many companies are finding that those recent graduates are not a perfect fit for the positions they have. This is due to another kind of talent gap: the gap between recent graduates’ perception of supply chain jobs and the reality of what those positions entail. Currently there is a dissonance between what employees and employers expect from each other. Many recent graduates see supply chain management as a technical profession that emphasizes the ability to analyze data and metrics. The reality is that in supply chain management, so-called “soft skills” are as important as technical know-how. In one recent study, employers said that the most important trait for employees in all professions is a strong work ethic. Other desirable traits included a positive attitude, the ability to communicate verbally and in writing, and being a good team player.3

Additionally, some supply chain executives report that many of the recent graduates they have hired expect flexible work schedules, quick career advancement, and the ability to work on projects that interest them. But the reality is that a successful supply chain career path often requires long hours, functional experience gained over many years, and working at manufacturing plants and distribution centers (which may seem unglamorous but are critically important).

This misalignment between expectations and reality has contributed to many young employees feeling dissatisfied with their jobs and careers, and many employers being unable to attract and keep top supply chain talent. The first step toward bridging the supply chain talent gap should be to understand these misalignments, followed by finding ways to realign the interests of all parties involved—employees, employers, and educational institutions.

This article will look at some of the misconceptions that are prevalent today, and what employers and educators can do to provide students and new hires with more realistic expectations about their career paths as well as a better understanding of what the job of a supply chain professional involves.

Technical versus soft skills
Many recent graduates of supply chain programs enter the workforce believing that technical skills and knowledge are the most important attributes for professional success. And, in fact, at conference sessions and professional-group discussions I’ve attended, employers often are very positive about the technical skills that new employees bring to their roles. They report that new hires typically latch on to data-driven projects and help companies pull, analyze, and report supply chain metrics.

Where employers say young staffers fall short is in soft skills like communication, teamwork, and managing relationships. While being able to handle technical tasks is indeed important in supply chain management, a primary focus of many positions is the ability to make a case for change in the workplace. This requires skills in analyzing and synthesizing data, communicating technical ideas to nontechnical leaders, and building a team to execute a project plan. As a result, employers are looking for people with the ability to work on and manage diverse teams, effectively communicate verbally and in writing with people at different levels, and receive and make constructive use of feedback.

Our education system does a good job of providing students in supply chain degree programs with knowledge about inventory, transportation, and logistics processes and analysis, but it has failed to create a body of students who have the soft skills employers are seeking. Some programs may touch on the development of those skills, but few provide in-depth training. For example, students are given many opportunities to present their projects to their peers, but little time is spent formally teaching students how to present ideas and arguments in a work environment. In my undergraduate engineering and graduate logistics programs, for instance, we gave presentations and wrote reports on technical findings. When I tried to give similar presentations as an entry-level analyst, however, I was told that I needed to simplify my presentation, develop solutions to the problems found, show how the results related to savings, and not be as “professorial” in my delivery. To be better prepared for the workplace, then, students should be taught not only how to give an academic presentation but also to simplify how they present their technical analysis, present not just the results of research but also the next steps, and explain to management the effect on the company’s bottom line.

Additionally, many university courses say they emphasize team-based learning, but students do not learn what it means to function as part of a team in real life. For example, students are often told to self-create their teams and determine a team leader. But teams are rarely formed this way in the working world. A more realistic approach would be for the professor to create the teams, select the team leaders, and tell students what the requirements are for each position on the team. That way, students will be responsible for specific parts of the project and will have to complete tasks they might not enjoy but are essential for the success of the team. This will approximate the situations they are likely to encounter in their future jobs.

Similarly, our current education system rewards students based on individual performance. If students are able to answer enough questions correctly on an exam or write a strong paper, they are rewarded with high grades. They are then told that if they keep their grades high enough, they will get a good job with a respectable company when they graduate. But managing a complex supply chain requires people to be able to do more than correctly answer questions on an exam or analyze a case study. This means employers and educators will have to move away from rating individual performance and instead rate performance based on how well a team or even an entire class does.

If students are assigned to teams and are assigned a team leader, as is typically the case in businesses, how well the team performs as a whole will be as important as how well each individual performs. Within each team, there will be tasks that are assigned to a team member that he or she will not want to do or will not know how to accomplish. It will be the responsibility of the team leader to help team members get the resources they need to accomplish their assignments. Under this model, evaluations should be based not only on the knowledge gained by individuals but also on how the team is able to solve the problem given to them with the resources provided.

Educators might argue that learning soft skills, such as how to work in a team or how to effectively communicate with peers, is not the purpose of a college degree. While that argument can be made, so can the counterargument: that supply chain knowledge is becoming so technical, industry/company-specific, and subject to ever-changing economic trends that it’s difficult for universities to teach the exact skills students would need for any particular job. Soft skills in leadership, teamwork, and organization, however, will help make students effective workers and leaders no matter what job they land after leaving their academic programs.

Yet at the same time, it is important to realize that addressing the soft-skill gap is not solely the responsibility of educational institutions or their students. Employers themselves must do a better job of communicating to potential employees and educators about the importance they place on soft skills as well as exactly what they are looking for from job applicants. Consider that many job descriptions emphasize the technical nature of supply chain positions while including only a brief mention that “strong written and verbal communication skills” are required. A more helpful approach would be for employers to be more specific, and to communicate that the job requires new hires to effectively communicate their ideas, problems, and solutions to co-workers as well as to management.

Image versus reality
In addition to a lack of awareness of the importance of soft skills, many recent graduates enter the workplace with unrealistic expectations about the amount and kind of work they will have to do to advance in their careers. In some cases, supply chain programs and faculty are fostering this attitude. For example, at a recent presentation by a college faculty member to a group of supply chain and logistics professionals and graduate students, I was stunned by the air of exceptionalism the speaker was creating by saying how great the school was, how honored the industry professionals should be to attend the presentation, and what outstanding employees the students would be because they were graduates of the university’s program. This attitude does the students a disservice. If they believe they are assured of success because they attended a specific program, they will be surprised when they get out into the workplace and find that how well they do the work matters more than where they went to school.

There is a perception among employers, moreover, that younger workers are myopically focused on climbing to levels beyond their experience, and that they expect to have promotions handed to them, without putting in the necessary time and effort or delivering results to their employer’s bottom line. As a general manager for a multibillion-dollar distribution company put it during a session at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ 2013 Annual Global Conference, “They all want to be vice president in six months.”

To prevent disillusionment and frustration, educational institutions and employers need to work together to present to students a typical career path. For example, undergraduates should look for rotational programs at large companies or operational supervision roles. After three to five years of strong performance, they should then be able to seek a manager’s role for five or more years before looking for senior manager positions. While there are a variety of career paths available to new employees, someone who is just leaving college should not expect to be in a senior position in three to five years, particularly at a large company. Those roles require many years of experience as well as competency in many different skills and functions.

Through case studies, presentations, and career-focused student associations, students can learn about the many career paths available to them. These experiences should teach students what is required of professionals in corporate, operations, and service provider roles. They also should help students understand the time commitment as well as the technical and soft skills they will need if they are to be considered for higher-level positions.

While career advancement is important, it is not the only factor that motivates the next generation of talent. Younger employees cite work-life balance as the top factor in selecting a job. They also seek a flexible work environment, and they want to work on projects that interest them, which might not be in alignment with the job where they are currently employed.4

That is all good in theory, but many recent graduates and new hires have a very unrealistic expectation of the work-life balance they can achieve in supply chain management careers. In conversations, students and young professionals often mention that they are seeking jobs with flexible work hours, exercise facilities, and a relaxed dress-code policy. While there are some companies that provide these benefits, many of the supply chain jobs that can lead to advancement require long hours in warehouses or manufacturing operations.

The reality of our profession is that fun and relaxing work environments are not standard. To help bridge the supply chain talent gap, employers and educators need to provide students with a realistic view of the work environment before they enter the work force. Through tours of companies, internship opportunities, and discussions in class, students can learn about the working environment in different industries. For example, in many manufacturing roles, attire may be casual but compliance with attendance and safety requirements is strict. In many corporate positions, however, there are dress and communication standards that employees must adhere to if they want to be taken seriously. While college is a time for self-expression, there are many jobs where compliance with rules regarding dress and behavior is important.

Employers must clearly communicate their expectations about how much time employees must work and when. However, it’s likely that more employers could allow employees some flexibility regarding work hours, instead of insisting that all work be performed during set times on specified days. For example, operational support and supervision, especially for manufacturing plant and warehouse shifts, do require set working hours, but many technology-focused jobs do not require someone to be at a desk for 40 hours a week.

At the same time, young employees must be respectful of the schedules their employers expect them to work, and they should be responsible and productive during those hours. If employees want flexibility, then they will have to demonstrate that they can handle it by working diligently and not spending time on Facebook, Twitter, or surfing the Web.

The right kind of feedback
Expectations would also be better managed if employers and employees were more open and honest in the feedback they are giving. Managers need to be candid about an individual employee’s opportunities for advancement, and they should give an honest assessment of what is required for that employee to be considered for higher-level positions. To prepare employees for those future positions, moreover, employers also need to be willing to help them develop the required capabilities. One of my previous employers, for instance, invested in public-speaking training and management coaching for top-performing employees. Companies can also invest in their employees’ development through professional associations’ training programs.

Furthermore, managers have to give feedback to young hires on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many employees only learn how well or poorly they are performing during their annual performance reviews. Such evaluations can be a very useful tool, but providing constant feedback to employees, and most importantly new employees, is essential to managing and improving their performance. These feedback sessions do not have to be formal, but they do require companies to actively encourage managers to give feedback to employees outside of a quarterly or yearly review. To ensure that these efforts are constructive, companies may need to train managers on how to conduct effective feedback sessions and how to record and review them.

For their part, young employees must keep in mind that the feedback they receive is intended to help guide their performance toward a goal. Again, it’s important for them to be realistic. They should understand that negative feedback is not a personal attack, nor is positive feedback an indication that a promotion is imminent.

Such communication should not be one-way. Employers must also provide opportunities for young employees to provide feedback—and they have to be willing to listen to those employees’ comments and suggestions, balance that feedback against what they have heard from other employees, and take action if required. They don’t always do so, however. Often, when young professionals express a need for flexibility, for example, their employers do not respond favorably. Failing to respond to these requests can make an employer seem like it doesn’t care about employees’ opinions, which can affect morale and work output. In a culture of instant status updates, more employees crave a direct response from managers and executives, so employers should try to respond to feedback, even if they are unable to change policies due to business requirements.

A joint effort
When comparing what employers expect with what young people are demanding, it is clear that young professionals’ perceptions of their career requirements and priorities are quite different from those of many employers. This is a gap that must be overcome in order for the work force of tomorrow to be ready for the next generation of supply chain challenges.

There are a number of steps employers, young employees, and educators can take to address this growing concern. For one thing, when a workplace treats people openly and honestly, employees will give their best, day in and day out. For another, achieving a mutually beneficial environment requires input from employees, employers, and the educational system. All parties, therefore, must be open to both giving and receiving feedback. Additionally, they all must make developing a team-focused organization a top priority.

Bridging the supply chain talent gap also requires employees, educators, and employers to change some perceptions about how a modern supply chain work force is organized. While it is good for educators to foster a passion for supply chain careers, students should be taught that developing the soft skills required for career growth is as important as a technical education. They must learn to work well with people at all levels of an organization, work to develop their core skills within their role, and help their organizations succeed as a whole. Employers, meanwhile, should recognize that young employees need attention and recognition when they go above and beyond what is expected. Additionally, top performers should be exposed to functions and experiences that would be beneficial to their development.

When employers focus on developing their employees, managing expectations, providing flexibility where possible, and giving feedback, it creates a work environment that people want to be a part of. Employees feel better aligned with their organizations and are motivated to work harder as a team. And finally, educators will recommend those employers to their students, and employers will gain—and retain—capable employees.

1. Francesca Di Meglio, “Supply-Chain Management: The New B-School Must-Have,” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 28, 2013.
2. Robert J. Bowman, “Bridging the Talent Gap in Supply-Chain Management,” SupplyChainBrain, September 30, 2013.
3. “Expectations Gap Threatens Talent Search: Study,” HR Professional, February 2013, 15.
4. PricewaterhouseCoopers, University of Southern California, and London Business School, PwC’s NextGen: A global generational study, April 2013, 8-10.