Supply chain and logistics degree programs on the upswing

( Image: Shutterstock )

(Image: Shutterstock)

 

Count universities among the for-profit and nonprofit organizations that are being reshaped by a certain e-commerce giant.

Wu Zhaohui, a professor of Supply Chain and Operations Management at Oregon State University, was having a hard time selling undergraduates on a new supply chain academic option. Accounting and marketing, the students understood – logistics, not so much. That is, until Zhaohui and his colleagues hit upon a simple marketing scheme.

“We say we’re like Amazon,” he said. Now the program is growing, with more than 60 students enrolled. “It’s like Nike is sports marketing – Amazon is logistics,” said Zhaohui. “Everyone can relate.”

This past fall, FreightWaves reported on the Urban Freight Lab, a University of Washington-led consortium among Amazon, Nordstrom, UPS, the City of Seattle and other stakeholders.

Degree programs are sprouting too. There is no data on the exact number of new offerings launching at U.S. colleges and universities, but anecdotal reporting suggests these institutions are ramping up supply chain and logistics coursework and career pathways. Student and employer interest is the driver.

Supply chain management and logistics is one of the top bachelor’s degrees in demand by employers according to surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employees (NACE). Forty percent of employers surveyed expect to hire supply chain graduates in the next year, NACE reported.

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The University of Washington (UW), for one, has responded with several programs. Its Foster School of Business launched a Master of Supply Chain Management in 2016. The program, which enrolled 38 students in its first year, (and 44 in 2018), was developed to meet the growing demand for supply chain talent, said program leader Sara Jones.

Another degree program, a hybrid online/residency Master in Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics, is offered through the UW Civil and Environmental engineering department and delivered through the continuing education division.

University classes in supply chain management aren’t new, said program lead Anne Goodchild, the director of the UW Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. But until recently, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to focus on the field. Students might have taken one class as part of a larger marketing or business degree, “and the form of credibility people had was how long they worked in the industry – it  tended to be something that people learned about on the job,” Goodchild said. “Now there’s a proliferation of more formal training opportunities.”

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Business schools are betting on new supply chain programs as one way to counteract some grim enrollment trends, at least at the graduate level. Enrollment in U.S. M.B.A. programs dropped 7 percent last year, declining for the fourth consecutive year, according to a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Students are questioning the return on investment at the same time that cheaper online alternatives have proliferated. Plus, many business schools outside of the elite Ivy League rely heavily on foreign students, especially from China and the Middle East. That stream has slowed as a result of immigration restrictions, as well as the growth of solid university business programs in countries that used to send students to the U.S.

“We [the MBA program] are not growing because international enrollment dropped,” said Zhaohui. Retooling undergraduate and graduate supply chain degrees and course curriculum to address the fast-growing and changing industry is helping fill the gap.

“Traditionally the logistics course was about vehicle routing,” he said.  “Now logistics to us has become the supply chain, about matching supply and demand globally.”

Employers are looking for different skill sets than were required five years ago, he added. “They want people with analytical and data skills, as well as knowledge about artificial intelligence.”

Goodchild echoed that sentiment. The UW logistics degree program, she said, puts a strong emphasis “on ways in which technology can be implemented, and how you use that data to jump up into managerial and leadership positions.”

Zhaohui himself came to came to Oregon State University in the early 2000s after working as a buyer for 10 years. “When I started it was about procurement; we were riding the wave of outsourcing,” he said.

As tariffs roil markets and companies move factories from China to Mexico and Vietnam, the focus – in the classroom as well as the corner office – is on redesigning the supply chain to manage risk.

These changes mark “the continuing evolution of the industry and the profession,” Zhaohui said.