Making the supply chain sexy

by Array

In late February 2012, MM&D convened a roundtable of supply chain executives to analyze the results of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council HR study. Emily Atkins moderated the roundtable and reports on the findings.

Skills shortages, an ageing workforce, lack of succession planning, and low awareness of the sector—these are just some of the serious issues facing employers in the supply chain sector. MM&D’s panel of senior supply chain sector executives, pictured above, corroborated the preliminary findings of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council HR study in a roundtable discussion held in February 2012.

The human resources issues facing the sector are complex and interconnected, potentially magnifying the challenges for those responsible for staffing supply chain positions. All of our panelists expressed frustration with at least some elements of the current states of affairs in the sector, and all had suggestions for improving matters.

What are the issues?
• Low awareness of the sector
• Shortage of skilled employees
• Recruiting
• Lack of succession planning
• Ageing workforce
• Compensation
• Recognition
• Educational opportunities
• Control south of the border
• Female representation

Awareness of the sector
“Nobody ever made a decision to purposely get into supply chain.” Tim Moore’s succinct statement was accepted by the group, but for him, the lack of awareness extends beyond the general public, and the corporate HR department, right into career centres and guidance counselling.

But that strategy still doesn’t address the question of raising awareness of supply chain. Patricia Moser says you have to make people aware that there are careers, and to do that there needs to be a marketing plan. “It’s got to be cool if you want to actually get people into the sector.”

“We have to look at how to make the supply chain sexy,” says Moore.

Skills shortage
Improving the supply chain’s attractiveness would help in addressing the industry’s labour

“It’s a reality…It’s the number one issue I face: where do you find talent and how do we bring it into the organization,” says Douglas Harrison.

Mike Mroczkowski puts it this way: “As we’ve gone through this very difficult last few years, as we’ve downsized and right-sized, we’ve lost a lot of skill. And, more importantly, we also have a lot of individuals who, as a result of losing their jobs, recognize the opportunity to get into the supply chain. And so they are changing career paths and while they’re very interested in the supply chain, they’re hoping to start at a fairly significant level based on where they were, but they lack the knowledge or the experience.”

Ageing workforce
The shortage of skilled labour, like truck drivers, is nothing new in the sector, but it remains a significant issue, says Brian Death. “I think its the oldest average age of any occupation in Canada. And we’re having trouble attracting new, younger recruits.”

And the average age may continue to climb if Moore is correct. “If there’s a skill shortage, they’re going to claw back the retirees and get them, hopefully, into short-term contract assignments and keep the knowledge base that right now they’re hemorrhaging, big time.

Education options
There are two facets to the education and training question. First is whether the education available for the industry is sufficient and meeting the needs of employers and employees. Second is who should be paying for it.

Mroczkowski sums it up: “There is a wealth, in my opinion, of professional development at a college or university level, a variety of different supply chain courses available. And you need to make that investment. If you truly are in an organization that values supply chain, [education] doesn’t get cut, even in tough times. You still send that person for the PLog or for the Schulich programs or whatever it takes to ensure that talent is being groomed.”

For the individual working in supply chain, Harrison has this advice: “It’s also incumbent upon people to own their own careers. Companies providing training are fairly limited these days. It’s amazing how many MBAs are self-funding today. For anyone in school looking at this industry, in this sector, boy, what a marvelous opportunity because we’re all desperate for talent, we’re all looking for those next leaders coming through.

“But I think, equally, any employee today needs to say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do to invest in my own career? What am I doing from a career education standpoint, from a continuing education standpoint? How am I rounding myself out and then how do I groom myself for an organization?’”

Death points out that the HR study showed many companies are not paying for education. “You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth if you’re complaining about the lack of skill and then you won’t pay somebody to take a course. So the industry has to look at itself, too, and ask what is your policy on education? Are you encouraging people to get [a designation]? And are you paying a part of that? So I think that’s where you get the next level.”

Closely linked with the problem of sector awareness is the question of recruiting. But while it may not be entirely incumbent on individual firms to raise awareness, the panelists agreed they can certainly influence their own chances in a competitive hiring market.

“Great companies attract great talent. Under-performing companies struggle to attract talent. And I think that would be more and more key as time goes on,” Harrison says.

Moore adds: “The firms that are going to be successful and sustainable will, first, recognize the supply chain; and second, evolve to be an employer of choice. It’s much bigger than simply just compensation. It’s making it attractive for the person to come onboard, it’s the tuition, it’s the memberships in associations.”

For Moser, there is a larger issue of ensuring that senior management understands the importance of the supply chain function. If they do, and appreciate the impact good supply chain professionals will have on the bottom line, then it will be easier to attract the kind of talent needed to sustain profitability.

Although people often end up in supply chain roles accidentally, it’s good practice for companies to engage people who have gained skills and perspective in other areas. For Harrison, the goal is to bring people in with “leadership skills and then provide training…to give them industry specific skills”.

Several of the panelists praised the practice of working in various areas of a company before landing in supply chain. “You should almost have rotation of everybody who comes in the door,” Moser says.

Succession planning
The lack of succession planning is seen as a significant problem, “especially with the competition and demand for this highly skilled, trained supply chain individual,” says Mroczkowski.

And, you need people who have experience. “You cannot grow that skill in six to nine months. You need to have that experience. You need to fall down, learn, continuously train yourself, have active involvement in associations, you name it, to get that breadth of experience.”

The current economic climate has not helped, says Death. During the recession “people let go of their middle managers and so now they’re thinking they need to hire them back. Well, when you let go of all your middle managers, who are you growing, who are you mentoring for the next position?”

Retaining good employees, along with recruiting good new ones, is key to succession planning. For Harrison, company culture is a critical factor, and there is an important generational component that organizations must be aware of. “When we look at that workforce that’s coming up today and moving through the early stages of their career or just coming out of school, company culture will be more and more key. As employers we need to be prepared and understand that we’re going to have a workforce that’s very mobile.

“Demand for talent is going to exist globally, so it’s actually an employee’s world going forward. We need to recognize that there’s going to be that turnover, probably at a more accelerated rate than we see today. I think it is a workforce that wants to be very engaged, wants to be respected and so for any organizations today that are autocratic in style, I think they’re going to be really challenged going forward with that workforce.”

Death noted the survey indicated many people chose supply chain careers because of a good work-life balance.
“We’re probably working a few more hours of late. And if they were attracted to our industry for a work-life balance, they may be disappointed in that part of it!”

Another key factor was engagement. Several panelists noted that getting employees involved in continuous improvement activities, like grassroots focus groups where employees are asked for ideas, makes a huge difference in whether those employees stay or leave.

Take aways
Moser recommends the sector council “provide a playbook which explains things you need to do to advance procurement and supply chain within the organization.”

Moore’s final prescription is to “be an employer of choice. That way, if the compensation is good, if there’s good equity, if there’s good reflection amongst the sexes, it will go a long way. And some companies are just starting to get that—you can really see it.”

For Death, the key is to treat people with respect and involve them in the business. Mroczkowski says “companies need to take ownership of HR issues. [They] need to be a stronger voice, active in industry associations, in education… to make that awareness even greater than it is today.”

The final word goes to Harrison, who says “the only key sustainable competitive advantage in business today is people…So as a sector it’s critically important that we brag more about the success stories and why this is a place to be.” MM&D

The Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (CSCSC) embarked in 2011 on a project to update its HR study of the sector. MM&D was selected as a partner in the research project. For more information on the complete research results, visit