So, you are thinking about a career in supply chain? You are not alone, especially as in the time since we first penned this article, one huge and unforeseen event has raised awareness of the global importance of this vital sector—and shown it to be an attractive career choice.
That event was the global COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted during the first half of 2020.
While this article is intended as an evergreen resource, to help you navigate in your search for a supply chain job, and is not a COVID-19-specific guide, the pandemic has galvanized attention on the industry and its criticality.
The focus is bound to increase as top business brains grapple with ways to control the havoc wrought by the pandemic and plot a way forward so that it doesn’t happen again.
What is the Role of the Supply Chain Worker?
Before we go any further, let us try to define the role of supply chain workers:
In the simplest terms, those connected to the supply chain industry are involved in one way or another in contributing to or managing the process of making or procuring goods and ensuring they reach the end-customer on time and in good order, with customer satisfaction and profitability being a priority.
Why Choose a Job in the Supply Chain Industry?
And now let us examine the reasons why a career in logistics offers so much diversity to so many workers. These are some of them:
- It gives you an in-depth overview of the entire organisation. You learn the suppliers’ business, you learn the customers’ business.
- It touches many departments, from production, procurement, shipping, accounting, and finance to marketing, warehousing, research and development, and sales.
- It’s a constantly-changing, ever-expanding industry.
- Supply chain management is increasingly making an impact on the overall functioning of the business and influencing C-suite decisions.
- It allows you a variety of experiences—no two days are ever alike.
- There is enormous scope for movement within the organisation, including changing careers.
- Supply chain management is increasingly becoming a clear path to the C-suite.
In short, the industry offers something for everyone—for those who enjoy physical activity, for those inclined towards the intellectual and/or analytical, and for others who desire some combination of both. There is plenty of opportunity for those who like to lead and manage, and for those who prefer to be led and inspired to contribute positively to the organisation.
Supply Chain is so extensive that anyone choosing this career path can find something to satisfy their goals and objectives.
In addition, it is entirely possible to make significant career changes within the sector—and, conceivably, even within the same company. For example, a member of the sales team could apply to become a purchasing agent, based on her experience of negotiating sales deals.
Sea Change—A Supply Chain Career is now seen as ‘Cool’
Until the pandemic throttled global supply chains and emptied supermarket shelves, the industry had suffered an image problem. It was seen as an unglamorous, little-understood niche field.
As a result, there is a global shortage of supply chain talent and there are plenty of jobs to be had.
One study shows that one in three companies in the United States has jobs that are taking nine to 12 months to fill. Another study reveals that the demand for supply chain talent exceeds supply by 6 to 1. This is expected to widen to 9 to 1 in the years ahead.
The main lack of talent is in middle management, especially in big data analytics and supply chain planning, where the shortage is around 54%.
This demand is expected to increase dramatically in the wake of the pandemic, as most companies have learned—the hard way—the importance of having staff with sufficient depth of talent and experience to adapt the supply chain to changing conditions and handle unexpected disruptions.
In a nutshell, the pandemic has increased the importance of supply chain, posited it as a ‘cool’ career choice, and strengthened the need for job seekers to improve their supply chain skill sets.
Getting Started in Supply Chain
Let me encourage you to join this exciting and challenging industry by running through the types of jobs that are available, and the qualifications you may need for an entry-level position.
To start with, you need to think what type of thing you would like to be doing. For example, you can be doing finance in supply chain, or you can be doing operations.
Another option is to work in a warehouse, or in transport, or maybe in customer service where you are dealing with people all the time. If engineering is your thing, you could join a third-party logistics company and focus on solutions design.
You could be particularly numerate, or into analysis. Do you want to be managing people?
Decide which niche suits you best then go for it!
What Qualifications Will I Need?
There are several ways to look at this question. If you have the ability, time, and money for tertiary education, that’s really good. A business degree with a supply chain focus will serve you well. You can’t go wrong with finance either.
A common route into supply chain management is a bachelor’s degree in supply chain management, logistics, or international transport.
If university study is a little beyond you right now, one of the certification courses might work better for you. APICS, for example, runs some really good supply chain and logistics programmes.
These include the following:
- Certified Purchasing Manager (CPM): The course is designed to recognise those who have acquired an acceptable level of training, skills, work experience, and effectiveness as a Professional Manager.
- Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM): The course covers ground such as knowledge of production and inventory management, internal operations, and customer relations.
- Certified Supply Chain Professional: Learn how to develop streamlined supply chain operations.
- Certified in Logistics, Transportation, and Distribution: This course comprises an in-depth study of a wide range of supply chain and logistics topics.
- Supply Chain Operations Reference (SCOR) Professional: Learn the techniques needed for managing and measuring the performance of a global supply chain.
In the end, as you progress through your supply chain career, you’ll probably want to sign up for a Master’s degree as well. Maybe a Master’s in supply chain itself, or logistics, and/or transport planning. Perhaps an MBA, or something like that.
What is the Entry Point for Supply Chain Jobs?
There are numerous ways to break into the industry at entry-level, including the following:
Using a Recruitment Agency
When starting out, many people talk to recruiting companies and head-hunters. This is of particular benefit if you wish to test the waters before committing to one job and one employer.
A recruitment agency may be able to find you a temporary position, which, if you prove to be a good fit with the company, could lead to a permanent job. But to be honest, this method becomes a bit of a numbers game. It’s hard to stand out from the crowd unless you’ve got exemplary qualifications.
Look out for industry-type events in your area, as these provide an opportunity for you to meet lots of people. Speak to as many professionals as you can—discuss your various options with them. And don’t be afraid to ask their advice on how to start out in the industry.
As the saying goes: “What you know is important; who you know is the key.”
LinkedIn is the best platform for this. Put your profile up so that managers can find you. Be sure to include all the keywords for the type of work you want to do. Recruiters and managers are increasingly using social media, in particular LinkedIn, to assess prospective candidates through their links and posts. You can significantly raise your profile by writing and sharing posts—the more the merrier. You can also use LinkedIn to scour the many supply chain jobs that are advertised on the platform.
Knock on the doors of some of the big FMCG companies, many of which take on interns. Some of them also have graduate programmes. Big companies offer an environment where you could grow, so try to get an entry-level position with one of them.
But I always stress to people starting out that they should not worry at what level they get in. Just get in and start gaining some experience.
Some of the best ways to do that are through third-party logistics companies (3PLs). You could pick up a job as a warehouse picker, a forklift driver, or even a truck driver. Some companies even hire scooter drivers for last-mile deliveries.
You could also get a role in product reception and dispatch. This entails receiving products at the warehouse from delivery vehicles and unpacking and storing them.
It doesn’t really matter what you are doing, just get into the industry. You will learn the ins and outs and in time will acquire all sorts of skills.
Other Entry-Level Supply Chain Jobs
There are many other entry-level jobs that you could explore. The following posts do not require previous experience but some demand a diploma, certification, or, possibly, a university degree. All will involve a period of on-the-job training:
- Cost estimators:These are the professionals who collect and analyse data in order to estimate the time, money, materials, and labour needed to manufacture a particular product, or to provide a service.
- Quality controllers: These positions are created at various points throughout the supply chain. The quality control inspector’s job is to test products and measure them against pre-set specifications. They will accept or reject products, recording the reasons for the decision and making suggestions on how to streamline the process.
- Buyers: Though they do not require previous hands-on experience, wholesale and retail buyers are typically required to have a business degree, especially one focused on supply management. The buyer’s job is to meet with vendors and negotiate the best possible product supply deals, and then oversee deliveries to ensure all contract obligations are fulfilled.
- Customer relations: Because the ultimate objective of the supply chain is getting the product into the hands of the customer, teams are employed to take orders, manage invoices, and keep track of returns. At a more senior level, we find customer relations managers. Their job is to manage overall service performance and develop relationships between their company and its customers.
- Marketing and advertising: If selling is your forte, there are plenty of positions in marketing and sales as well as in advertising and merchandising.
But that’s Not All—There is a Wide Range of Other Possibilities
What makes the supply chain such an exciting field to be in is the range of opportunities for professionals and non-professionals alike. Let’s take a look at some of these. It might surprise you that the following four roles are linked to the supply chain industry, but indeed they are:
1. IT Specialists
Supply chains these days cannot function effectively without systems and technology—and hence require maintenance and support provided by IT personnel.
2. Data Managers
Data management and data control are essential tools to help supply chain chiefs sift through accurate information before making important management decisions.
3. Finance managers
These are the highly trained professionals who control company capital and cash flow. They also need to keep a check on inventory levels and identify obsolete stock.
4. Human Resources Personnel
These are the staff members who ensure that supply chain employees are trained properly and paid a wage appropriate to their skills and experience.
Other Openings for Graduates
So, you have graduated with a bachelor or master’s degree in supply chain. What now?
There are plenty of entry-level jobs around for graduates—it is just a matter of finding the right one for you.
But a word of caution: supply chain management is heavily data/process-driven, and largely focused on quantifiable figures. The ability to use available technological tools to interpret data is becoming a must for those in managerial positions.
This is particularly so because systems to track supply forecasts and flows are becoming more and more sophisticated. A manager needs to be in the position of being able to use the latest technological tools to analyse data and draw up actionable plans from it.
And if that is not daunting enough, simulation, modelling, forecasting, problem-solving, and negotiation skills are becoming essential requirements for management positions.
Furthermore, the ability to respond in a calm and considered way to new situations—such as major and unexpected disruption to supply chain operations of the kind caused by the COVID-19 pandemic—is also seen in these uncertain days as being a vital management requirement.
If you haven’t been put off by now, why not consider one of the following positions for a possible career choice?
1. Supply Chain Analyst
As the name suggests, this job entails collecting and analysing data, so if you are blessed with above-average analytical, problem-solving, and planning skills this important post could be for you.
As part of your duties you would be expected to:
- Recommend cost-optimising measures throughout the supply chain.
- Coordinate with other departments to implement changes.
- Identify problems and recommend ways to overcome them.
- Streamline standards, including in procurement, packaging, and delivery.
- Track KPIs and benchmark the supply chain’s performance.
- Liaise with IT specialists over the introduction of effective systems.
- Recommend ways to enhance performance metrics such as inventory, delivery, and overdue orders.
2. Supply Chain Coordinator
This job would suit a graduate who has studied subjects such as continuous process improvement, materials replenishment planning (MRP), supply chain management (SCM), and project development.
As supply chain coordinator, you would be expected to:
- Meet on-time delivery
- Measure and manage supplier performance.
- Manage inventory levels.
- Organise collection and shipment of freight.
- Liaise between the warehouse and the customer service department concerning the collection and dispatch of goods.
3. Production Planner/Inventory Controller
The most important proficiency required for this job is a thorough understanding of the lean & Six Sigma principles. Employers would also expect a candidate to have a basic understanding of manufacturing capacity planning and materials planning procedures.
In this demanding position, you would be expected to:
- Manage manufacturing capacities to meet current and future customer demands.
- Manage planning parameters such as order policies, buffer stock levels, lead-times for manufactured and/or purchased items/SKUs.
- Prepare the supply chain processes to be able to deal expeditiously with urgent or unexpected demand or shortages of supplies.
- Ensure that work orders are met on time.
- Analyse data to find ways to clear excess inventory and improve customer service levels.
- Regularly review inventory planning parameters, including safety stock, Kanbans, order quantities, and lot sizes.
This position usually requires a candidate to have studied for a bachelor’s degree in business, systems engineering, or supply chain management. Training in the use of software and technologies commonly used by logisticians, such as Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), would be seen by prospective employers as a significant bonus.
As a logistician, you would be expected to:
- Manage the lifecycle of a product throughout the supply chain, from procurement to distribution and delivery.
- Direct the movement of materials, supplies, and products.
- Review logistical functions and identify potential weaknesses.
- Develop systems to identify clients’ needs and ways to meet these needs.
- Build strong business relationships with suppliers.
- Review and streamline transport strategies.
- Make extensive use of software programmes designed to plan and track the movement of products.
5. Purchasing Agent
This post requires a good head for figures as well as excellent negotiation skills.
As a purchasing agent, you would be required to:
- Manage the purchase of equipment, components, and/or services for the company.
- Prepare purchase orders, solicit bids, and oversee requisitions for goods and services.
- Negotiate contracts with suppliers and vendors.
6. Procurement Analyst
This job is often carried out by the purchasing agent, but in its most specialised form entails analysing historical purchasing costs for materials as well as forecasting future costs. Data analysis is a key component of this position.
7. Warehouse Manager
Strong management skills, advanced computer literacy, and a thorough knowledge of inventory and inventory controls are essential requirements for this post.
As a warehouse manager, you would be expected to:
- Supervise the receipt, storage, and dispatching of goods.
- Manage warehouse staff, vehicles, and all equipment.
- Interview, select, and train new warehouse staff.
- Implement warehouse safety and security programmes.
Very Important: Polish Your CV
Companies are flooded daily with CVs from eager job-seekers and unless yours is exceptional, it will end up somewhere in the pile along with all the others.
These are some of the points to watch out for when writing a CV:
- Be brief. Use active language and include only information that is relevant.
- Highlight any skills you may have beyond those demanded in the job description. Proficiency in, for example, MS Access, Google Analytics, Adobe Suit, or Excel would create a good impression.
- Don’t exaggerate! Be straight up about your skills, abilities, and experience. Amplifications are easily spotted and diminish the positive image you need to create.
And Now For the Interview…
They shouldn’t be, but interviews are often hit and miss affairs. It obviously helps if you can create the right impression as you walk into the room. You need to exude an air of confidence and convince them that you have what it takes to do the job.
Here a few pointers that may just give you the edge.
- Be prepared by thoroughly studying the job description.
- Clearly explain what skills you can bring to the position.
- Be assertive with your reasons for wanting a career with that particular company.
- Do as much research as you can about the company so that you will not be wrong-footed by any curve-ball questions.
Demonstrate Your Value
Supply chain management relies heavily on strategy, so it is important to demonstrate to potential employers that you have a good grasp of the challenges you will face in the industry—and how best to meet these challenges.
Managers favour candidates who can show that they understand the ‘big picture’ and can get the job done. Those who can demonstrate the ability to communicate effectively with others in the industry and make decisions based on data analysis will also catch the manager’s eye.
To be honest, the best way to demonstrate that you are a competitive candidate is to show that you have a deep understanding of supply chain processes, and, even better, to suggest ways to tweak those processes for greater efficiency.
You need to be well-informed, so take classes, read blogs, research supply chain topics intensively, and speak as much as possible with those involved in the industry.
It is well worth the effort—a career in supply chain offers a dynamic, challenging, ever-shifting business environment. In my experience, a bored supply chain manager is as rare to find as a lazy ant (have you EVER found a lazy ant?).
And The Odds are in Your Favour
The lack of talent and skills in the supply chain industry is only going to get more serious, not least of all because the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed weaknesses which had long been ignored.
But there are other structural fault-lines:
Globalisation: The supply chain had become more complex due to globalisation, with product parts being manufactured in multiple countries to cut costs. The pandemic, however, has exposed the inherent weaknesses of globalisation and is spurring companies to rethink their business models. For this they need people with sufficient talent and experience to be able to make crucial management decisions.
Changing skill sets: The increased importance of technology in the supply chain field means that companies need to replace managers who leave or retire with people who have greater analytical and technical skill sets. But in reality, there is not enough of this talent around.
Currently Working? You Already Have a Foot in the Door
If you are currently working for a company that supplies goods or services, you could change careers without even looking for a new employer. Your company may well welcome your willingness to change focus, especially in the light of the supply chain shake-up that is taking place in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if you are not part of the industry already, you could very easily make the transition, simply by putting out your resume where it will be noticed – for example on Upwork, LinkedIn, or Glassdoor.
Choose your Niche and make it your Own
With everything going for you, I would advise you to carefully decide what you would like to be doing, which niche is for you, and then set about gaining the relevant knowledge and expertise.
When you have done that, you will be in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose the company that you believe will best harness your talents and offer you an exciting future.
One thing I can guarantee you is that you will never be bored!
I say it time and time again—it doesn’t matter how you get into supply chain, just get in! And the main point I make on my YouTube video on this subject is that it doesn’t matter too much what your role is. What is important, is that you get a foot in that supply chain door.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2020. It has now been expanded to make the content more comprehensive and informative, and to reflect developments in our industry arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent update was made in September 2020.