Higher education programs respond to region’s need for supply chain managers

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Working in logistics and inventory for Komatsu Mining Corp., Steven Peterson recognizes the world of supply chain management has changed since he graduated from college just eight years ago.

The digital transformation prompted by artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things – sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution – has transformed the way products are produced, services are delivered, and consumers consume.

The first cohort of the online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program at Marquette University.

“Industry is changing fast and the younger generation is getting more tech-savvy,” Peterson said. “There are new things on the horizon that we didn’t necessarily learn when we were in school originally and we need to keep up with the times and be ahead of the curve, and then be the leaders going forward.”

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Peterson is one of 10 students in Marquette University’s inaugural cohort of its new Master of Science in Supply Chain Management, a program aimed at helping professionals prepare for and lead change within the industry.   

The online program, which launched in August, represents an effort by higher education institutions to respond to the growing need for supply chain talent, spurred in part by the introduction of several major companies in the region, including Foxconn Technology Group, Amazon, Uline Inc. and others in the growing corridor along I-94 between Milwaukee County and the Illinois state line.

In addition to new companies entering the area, the rise of so-called smart manufacturing practices, or “Industry 4.0,” is changing the way long-established Milwaukee-area companies operate.

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“It’s a really good time to be in supply chain,” said Douglas Fisher, director of Marquette’s Center for Supply Chain Management. “Retail is facing pressure. You’ve got Amazon in the logistics space. Industry 4.0 is changing manufacturing amazingly … Foxconn has said they will take their next leadership out of supply chain because it touches so much of the business. What used to be a backroom cost function is now out in front.”

Marquette officials felt an urgency to develop the master’s program quickly, which was approved in December 2017 and welcomed its first cohort just eight months later.

“We talk to lots of companies and … they are having trouble recruiting enough people in supply chain,” said Mark Barratt, faculty program director of Marquette’s Master of Science in Supply Chain. “Then we started looking at the national picture, with a massive number of middle and senior level people retiring, with the emergence of Industry 4.0 and digital supply chain, we decided we could put the two together … We knew we had to do it quickly.”

It was also the next step for the university as it has spent the past decade focused on bolstering enrollment and the status of its supply chain undergraduate program, which has grown from a small program to being ranked 13th nationally on the 2019 U.S. News & World Report list.

Tom Berdelle, a student in Marquette’s Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program, with Mark Cotteleer, research director at Deloitte.

Gateway Technical College launched its own two-year associate’s supply chain program this fall, with a goal of graduating workers who understand the new tech-driven industry.

With the growing reliance on robots to load, unload and stock warehouses, supply chain managers today need to know not only how supplies are getting from point A to point B, but also the technology behind those automated processes, said Joe Fullington, dean of Gateway’s school of business and transportation.

Gateway’s addition of the supply chain program was a response to swelling demand from employers in the region. Fullington said with any new program, the college works to ensure that the number of available jobs in the region outpaces the number of graduates it is capable of producing in any given year.

In addition to logistics, purchasing, statistics, safety and leadership development, the program curriculum includes a course on robotics. Gateway holds the core classes for the program at its SC Johnson integrated Manufacturing and Engineering Technology Center in Sturtevant.

“You can’t do what you did in the past; throw it on a pallet, shrink wrap it and so forth,” Fullington said. “It has to be packaged in a way that a robot can unpack it. Being able to give our students a leg up to understand (robotics) from the logistics side of things is going to give them opportunities.”

And, increasingly, graduates will find those opportunities in southeastern Wisconsin, Fullington said.

“Southeast Wisconsin is becoming the mecca center for Industry 4.0,” Fullington said.

In addition to new technology, consumer behavior has been a catalyst for the transformation of supply chain management, said James Merwin, director of supply chain for Kohler Co.’s vitreous operations.

“Supply chain as a profession has snowballed in terms of its importance,” he said.

“It’s really gained a lot of momentum. Companies will always need to compete, supply chain to supply chain, in terms of staying cost competitive and keeping product available to their customers in a world where everyone expects the product to be available right away.”

Merwin serves on Marquette’s Center for Supply Chain Management advisory board, a group of professional representatives that meets several times throughout the year to ensure the curriculum keeps pace with industry.

It’s built intentionally as an agile program, capable of responding to changes within the industry, Fisher said.

“The whole Industry 4.0 is evolving,” he said. “So what you see this year is probably going to be different next year. It’s just that fast-moving of a program.”

Chris Ream, a student in Marquette’s supply chain management master’s program who works for Amazon in the Chicago area, said he’s seen firsthand the change in his industry since graduating from his undergraduate program six years ago.

“It was a lot more basic – here’s the layout of a warehouse, here’s a truck, the truck goes from point A to point B,” he said. “Even from when I first started, it was a lot of pen and paper doing math on the go, hoping your estimates were correct. Over the years, as things have evolved to where we are today, with the technology we have today, we can track and plan so much better.”

While automation can often bring fear of eliminating jobs, Nicholas Bartling, an Oconomowoc resident in the Marquette master’s program, said there is security in knowing that supply chain managers will always be needed as long as consumers keep consuming.

“Yes, there is a lot of stuff moving online and we’re getting used to consuming digital products, but there is still a massive need for physical goods,” he said. “And yes that’s going to become more technologically oriented, but on the back end, we have to move the stuff from here to there. Producing things using physical components is never going to change.”

After 24 years of teaching supply chain management, Barratt said it’s the “most exciting time” to be producing the next generation of leaders.

“It’s like being a kid in a candy store,” he said. “There are so many things happening at the moment; some new technologies and some existing technologies, but put it all together and it’s like someone gave you a whole new toolbox. And now it’s the question of, ‘How do we use this?”

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