Supply Chain

The Need for STEM Skills in the Supply Chain

Supply Chain Management Review • Becky Partida

Organizations can close skills gaps by offering development opportunities to both new and existing employees.

The complexity of modern supply chains and the advancement of technology in the field have led organizations to place greater importance on the need for supply chain employees to possess STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. APQC has found that a slight majority of organizations look for STEM skills in their new hires for supply chain positions. The most highly sought after of these skills are engineering and operations research, or the use of analytics to optimize transportation networks.

As in many fields, STEM skills are not widely available or fully developed among supply chain professionals. APQC has found that some organizations are tackling this problem by creating development programs for new professionals.

However, lasting solutions provide development of STEM skills among both new and more tenured employees. Some organizations have found this balance and seen positive results for the business.

STEM Gap Among Supply Chain Professionals

There is a gap in STEM skills within the supply chain management field, which is no surprise given the gap experienced across industries. In a survey conducted by APQC, the largest group of organizations find supply chain job candidates to be only somewhat well prepared with regard to data/analytics capabilities, industrial engineering and technology solutions.

With the increased use of data in nearly all organizations, regardless of industry, it is no surprise that new supply chain job candidates are somewhat better prepared with regard to data or analytics capabilities. Yet, there is clearly room for supply chain job candidates to further develop their skills.

Organizations also have difficulty retaining supply chain professionals in STEM-focused roles, such as data analysts, industrial engineers and supply chain network designers. The largest groups of organizations surveyed by APQC rate retaining staff in these positions as somewhat difficult or difficult. A small group of organizations encounter no difficulty keeping individuals in these positions. This data indicates employees with STEM skills can easily find more desirable employment elsewhere if they are not motivated to stay at an organization.

Emphasis On New Employees Over Mid-Career Employees

APQC has also found that organizations that want to address the gap in STEM skills often focus employee development efforts on "newcomer" employees, or those with less than seven years of experience. The largest group of organizations surveyed by APQC does not make a consistent effort to develop mid-career employees. The story is different when it comes to developing employees with fewer years of experience. The largest group of organizations devotes significant effort to increasing learning activities for these employees, and has obtained some leadership support for this effort.

This data highlights the need for organizations to develop the STEM skills of all levels of employees, not just new ones. To thoroughly address the loss of skills and knowledge caused by the impending retirement of supply chain professionals, as well as the more broad lack of STEM skills among employees, organizations need to take a focused approach to employee development. Of organizations surveyed by APQC, 92% train and develop employees in STEM skills using in-person or virtual training courses. This is followed closely by the use of technical conferences and forums (90% of organizations). Slightly less (89% of organizations) have adopted mentoring or apprenticeship programs, and about two-thirds of organizations have adopted programs that identify and develop high-potential employees.

A majority of organizations find their mentoring/ apprenticeship programs and training courses to be effective or very effective. Interestingly, only 47% of organizations consider technical conferences or forums to be very effective or effective at developing employee STEM skills. This highlights the need for organizations to adopt focused yet tactical training on STEM-related topics. Conferences can provide broad knowledge and introduce employees to the latest developments in their field, but for day-to-day knowledge that employees can apply long-term, they need more focused programs.

How Organizations Do It

There are organizations that have created opportunities to develop the technical skills of their employees without interrupting the important and time-sensitive work of the supply chain. Newmont Mining Corporation and Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) have adopted a variety of programs for developing both new and mid-career employees that complement the supply chain function and have led to benefits to the business. Let's look at both.

Newmont Mining. Newmont Mining recruits new supply chain employees from a broad pool of individuals with various backgrounds, including technical fields such as engineering. However, the organization considers it more important for individuals to be well balanced and have the ability to transition between the supply chain, technical and commercial aspects of a role. All of the new hires for its supply chain function go through an induction program that exposes them to the basic aspects of what their jobs will entail. They then move on to individual development programs tailored to their experience, competencies and levels of expertise.

Newmont sets development goals and targets for all of its supply chain employees. It provides access to online, classroom and hands-on training, and offers key competency refresher courses in a classroom setting. To supplement individual development efforts, it offers a series of online videos that can help individuals overcome knowledge gaps.

Newmont designs development goals to prepare employees to take on more responsibilities, which not only lead to individual growth, but also make an employee eligible for promotions. Supply chain employees are also prepared for higher roles through development assignments, training and executive coaching, and informal mentoring with more senior employees.

Due to this multi-faceted approach to employee training and development, Newmont has increased the competencies of its supply chain staff. This has enabled the organization to promote employees to higher positions, rather than have to find external candidates.

BD. To ensure that its new supply chain employees have skills needed by the organization, BD has created a supply chain development program for its entry-level employees. This two-year, structured rotational program provides leadership development and hands-on work experience. The program exposes participants to different areas within BD's global integrated supply chain function and gives individuals the opportunity to identify which tracks they would like to pursue. It also gives BD's leadership the opportunity to assess participants' skill sets and performance across a range of supply chain processes to determine which roles they should fill.

The organization has created BD University to give its existing employees access to a variety of courses designed to enhance leadership and behavioral skills. Mid-career employees are assigned leadership mentors so that they can broaden their experience and capabilities. BD also identifies high-potential employees and offers them the ability to take assignments in other regions. It also conducts annual reviews for all supply chain employees that include a comparison of the individual's skills against the skills needed for their position. Should the review identify any competency gaps, BD creates a development plan to help the individual close those gaps.

BD's development efforts have improved the capabilities of its supply chain employees. Giving high performers the opportunity to move to other regions has allowed the organization to improve operations in those areas. BD has also seen improvement in its supply chain cost since implementing its talent development efforts.

The Need To Go Broad

With STEM skills still lacking among candidates for supply chain positions, organizations have to get creative to develop these skills among their new and existing employees. It may be tempting to focus development efforts solely on entry-level professionals because they represent an easier and faster route for bringing needed skills to an organization. However, mid-career employees have the organizational experience and on-the-job knowledge of supply chains that new employees do not. By creating a balance of development efforts that build on new employees' skills and offer more-tenured employees the opportunity to be mentored and to accept stretch assignments, organizations can grow STEM skills in-house. This can help organizations prevent the loss of skills and knowledge from retiring professionals. Growth opportunities can also set apart an organization as a desirable employer and make mid-career professionals with STEM skills more likely to stay.


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