The Future of the Supply Chain

Future of the Supply Chain

What will it take to find, train, and retain talent going forward? Three supply chain experts dust off their crystal balls and discuss the top ways to build the workforce for the future.

As the national economy continues to improve and organizations strive to minimize risk, improve customer service, adopt solid omni-channel processes, and gain competitive advantage, supply chain talent is becoming increasingly difficult to find and retain. Add to the equation the fact that the nation’s 73 million Baby Boomers have already started retiring and the need for better talent retention becomes even more critical.

To address these and other issues with the supply chain workforce of today and tomorrow, Supply Chain Management Review’s Editorial Director Bob Trebilcock sat down with three top executives at ProMat 2015 in Chicago. There, they discussed how companies could find, train, and retain a workforce that will sustain to 2025 and beyond. The summit keynote panel laid out the broad challenges that companies are facing and then offered a range of approaches to create a workforce capable of exceeding the expectations of supply chain partners and customers.

Joining Trebilcock were Betsey Nohe, vice president of supply chain at Morton SaltJeff LeClair, vice president of manufacturing and supply chain for Basin Industries; and John Caltagirone, an experienced supply chain executive and the founding director of the Supply and Value Chain Center at the Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago. During the keynote presentation, they touched on four key areas of concern for today’s leading organizations. This article explores each of those key areas, explains the top challenges associated with them, and lays out some solid strategies for managing these issues in today’s competitive business environment.

A Look into the Crystal Ball

Given the rapid pace of change that most companies are dealing with today, getting professionals and executives to give 10-year outlooks on specific topics has become increasingly difficult. Luckily, the ProMat panel’s supply chain gurus were up to task. When asked to look into their crystal balls and determine what challenges companies might be facing at an operational or corporate level in 2025, the panel discussed the broad challenges that their own organizations are confronting, the approaches that they’re taking, and key ways to exceed the expectations of supply chain partners and customers.

Morton Salt’s Betsey Nohe kicked off the panel by talking about the massive wave of retirements that are expected to affect firms over the next decade. “We’re losing sleep over how to fill those roles,” said Nohe, who pointed to the fact that many of Morton Salt’s operations are situated in small towns where salt deposits are located. With more people migrating to larger towns and metropolitan areas—and with the booming oil and gas business attracting a higher number of workers—the company faces some unique challenges when it comes to fulfilling its workforce needs.

Concurrently, Nohe said that mining itself has become more technological in nature. “It’s not just about brawn anymore,” she pointed out. “We need highly skilled, tech-savvy workers to fill open positions.” On a corporate level, Morton Salt has some stiff competition for talent in the company’s hometown of Chicago. “We’re always looking at how to better brand our business to attract candidates and help them choose our company,” Nohe said.

Basin Industries’ Jeff LeClair has prior experience working for large corporations like Toyota and Caterpillar. In assessing future workforce needs and the 2025 timeline, LeClair said that now is the time for organizations to start working more closely with institutions (both high school and college) to build a better workforce. “It’s about helping employees understand their roles and what value they bring to the customer,” said LeClair. “To achieve this, companies need to take a long-term view on workforce development.”

At Loyola University of Chicago’s Quinlan School of BusinessJohn Caltagirone noted that supply chain professionals are becoming more and more critical on a global basis. Asked what its top challenges were in the Middle East and Asia right now, one global company told Caltagirone the most critical three were: water, labor, and talent. The problem, he said, is that supply chain is currently “behind the times” as a profession.

“Information technology knows it needs a backup plan, but supply chain is catching up and saying: ‘Could a disaster happen and if so, do we have a backup plan?’” Caltagirone said, adding that he sees close alignment among workforce planning, business strategy planning, and human resource management in the future. “To get us to where we need to be in 10 years, everyone has to be involved.”

Achieving a Good Balance

While the need for technical competency within the supply chain management space remains high, companies’ requirements around soft skills have changed significantly in the last few years. For example, the recent supply chain graduate who can pore over spreadsheets and assess performance—but who can’t communicate effectively with team members—faces key hurdles in his or her career.

In looking at how demand is changing from hard to soft skills, and in looking forward to how the demands of the supply chain job will change in the future, Nohe pointed to demand planning as one area of particular concern. “In this area, we go out and hire math-minded individuals who understand statistical models and predictive analytics,” she said, “but in doing so we’re finding that these people really can’t hold a good meeting, or that they can’t effectively collaborate with their peers.”

To help fill in those gaps, Morton Salt conducts formal, in-house training sessions with its employees. “A computer may be able to take over the demand planning process,” she noted, “but it’s the other pieces where the human element adds value.”

According to Caltagirone, communication skills seem to be lacking most among recent college grads who are making their way out into the workforce. “That’s the number one concern that we’re hearing from corporations,” Caltagirone said. As a result, his institution has increased its focus on teaching writing, speaking, business ethics, and communication skills to its students. “In the end, it’s a two-way street,” he said. “Both corporations and schools have to work together to come up with different programs to tackle these challenges.”

More Soft Skills Needed

Soft skills may be especially critical at the managerial and executive level, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also important out on the plant floor. At Morton Salt, for example, the company is involving more of its operations and distribution center employees in the “soft skills” conversation.

“Both are becoming more ‘businesspeople’ in nature and tying their activities into the overall business picture,” said Nohe, who recently learned that one of the firm’s human resources professionals was talking to a plant manager about the need for better adherence to schedules. When overlooked, this single process can result in customer disappointment—a problem that affects the entire organization. “This elevates the level of conversation,” she said, “and helps everyone under- stand what’s right for the business, the customer, and the community.”

LeClair pointed to the fork-lift truck driver who opens up process improvement dialog with an assembly worker as another example of effective cross-communication on the plant fl . “It can be as simple as: ‘hey is everything running okay?’ but it works; as a company, you get the best of both worlds out of these interactions,” said LeClair. “In the end, constant improvement dialog starts with two people collaborating and communicating.”

In Caltagirone’s eyes, the responsibility of getting plant floor employees to “see the bigger picture” and understand how their activities impact profitability ultimately falls on management’s shoulders.  As the former COO of grocery delivery service Peapod, Caltagirone said that forklift operators were called “ambassadors” because in many cases these folks were the only ones who made face-to-face contact with the firm’s customers. “Whenever you find an organization that uses the ‘reverse pyramid’ leadership approach— with the employees at the top and management at the bottom,” he pointed out, “that really says something about its culture.”

Waging the War for Talent

No one would argue the fact that companies are going to find themselves in a heated competition for top supply chain talent in the near future. “It’s already intense,” said Caltagirone, who works with a number of companies that are opening offices both in downtown Chicago and in the suburbs to accommodate younger workers who want to live and work in the city. “Going forward, it’s not going to get any easier to obtain and retain talent.”
Nohe concurred, and said that Morton Salt puts much effort into workforce planning.  “We’re looking at our bench strength for critical positions and always scouting in non-traditional places (i.e., military personnel who have completed duty and are now looking for work),” said Nohe. “We’ve broadened our perspectives and are even working with high schools to get students excited about our careers and our field.”

As part of that process, Morton Salt runs an apprenticeship program designed to attract a younger crowd interested in future careers with the company. “Mining is a very skilled job, so we frequently partner with high schools and colleges,” she explained. “We bring the technical piece to the party and they’re going to bring the math skills and other essential skills; together, we can create those programs.”

Finally, getting into the “mind of the Millennial” will be a crucial point for companies looking to develop their workforces for 2025, according to Caltagirone. “Millennials want options, good corporate cultures, and the opportunity to work on teams and collaborate,” said Caltagirone, who suggests cross training as a potentially useful tool for firms looking to develop solid supply chain talent and bench strength. “The better understanding someone has of the company’s internal and external customers, the more paths you’ll be able to provide for them to go down.”