UT supply chain program combines education, industry experience

6/5/2017

Catherine Hawley, University of Tennessee supply chain graduate, spent last summer as an intern with Eastman Chemical Co. But her position wasn't what she hoped.

"I worked in logistics," she said. "And when they told me that, I was almost devastated."

Logistics wasn't the supply chain role Hawley wanted. She wanted to work in procurement. But after completing the internship and the rest of her supply chain classes, Hawley is a full-time logistics planner at Eastman. The word "devastated" is nowhere near how she feels about her job.

"I found that a faster pace is better suited for me, but I don't think I would have gotten that from a textbook," she said. "Seeing (logistics) in the real world is a lot different."

Combining real-world experience with academia and research is part of what sets UT apart from other programs, Professor Theodore Stank said.

The UT supply chain program was ranked No. 3 on Gartner's top 25 supply chain undergraduate programs and No. 2 on Gartner's graduate program list in 2016.

Building industry relationships

Almost 20 years ago UT began hosting a supply chain forum as a way to connect the university to the industry. Sixty-five local and national companies are sponsors of the forum, including Amazon.com, Eastman Chemical Co., Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Pilot Flying J and Lockheed Martin.

"These are the companies that we turn to when we read something that's a hot topic and we wonder what the research implications are," Stank said. "These are the folks that we have friendships with. They make their data available to us. Their managers are available to talk to us."

Building and maintaining relationships with industry leaders creates a cycle to move the industry forward and creates a better learning experience, Diane Mollenkopf, McCormick associate professor of logistics, said.

"We hear what the issues are (and learn about) leading-edge innovation for them, and that sparks our research and things we take into the classroom to make sure students are well prepared for the working world," Mollenkopf said. "Forum members that participate also get value. They hear about research we're doing and new ideas we're bringing to the table, so it's very much a two-way street as far as knowledge and development."

Professor Chris Craighead said research conducted at UT is "much stronger and more relevant" because of forum connections.

"If you stay in the ivory tower and you don't get engaged in industry, you go back and say, 'Hey, I have a new algorithm for doing this,' and they (shrug their shoulders)," Craighead said. "I think if you look at the top programs, you'll see that characteristic, and that's alive and well here."

Hawley's experience with the forum is what Stank calls most valuable.

"Probably the most important thing they do is ... they probably hire 80 percent of our students," Stank said.

Students are exposed to supply chain professionals as early as freshman year through the forum's Scholars of Distinction program. Interested students apply for the program and receive professional development coaching, learn about forum sponsors and attend recruiting events with them.

Stank said when students are connected with companies throughout college and participate in internships it gives them a leg up after graduation.

"Our sponsoring companies who have been hiring our really good students for years now, those students do really well, rise in the company and come back to us, because they're our graduates and they see the value we've created," Stank said.

The supply chain evolution

One piece of advice from forum members on the supply chain program's executive advisory board reshaped the way the program was laid out.

"They said, 'Look, the talent we need can't be so specialized that they don't understand what's going on in the other areas,' " Stank said. "You need to expand, because if they're just logistics people we can't use them as well as if they're supply chain people with a little expertise in logistics.'

"We can teach them the deeper knowledge, but they have to understand that broad, end-to-end spectrum."

Craighead said this is an industrywide shift, and the university works to ensure the curriculum is shifting with it.

"Like companies, if we don't reinvent ourselves we become obsolete," Craighead said. "Look at the Sears, the Kmarts. You've got somebody like an Amazon that comes in and just changes the rules. If you don't adapt and somehow navigate that environment, you become obsolete."

Changes were made in the class content and the way it's taught. Students are exposed to the entire supply chain to be aware of the interrelatedness of each aspect. Students start with logistics, purchasing, technology infrastructure and analytics classes before taking Mollenkopf's capstone class that requires students to take each aspect of the supply chain and apply it to big picture thinking.

"I start shifting students from student mode to management mode," Mollenkopf said.

In Hawley's case, understanding the entire supply chain process was critical. She didn't know she would play a logistics role at Eastman until the week before she started.

"It didn't bother me at all, because I knew I would be comfortable walking into any position here based on my education," she said. "It helps a lot knowing the process. I sit here and do my logistics job, but I know someone had to purchase the materials, manufacture the product, store it and now I ship it to the customer.

"Knowing how things are connected helps you do your job better, much quicker and more efficient," Hawley said.

A male-dominated major

In the last 10 years, the major went from graduating approximately 150 students to graduating about 350, Craighead said. The number of jobs available in the industry also is growing.

But the number of female supply chain majors hasn't moved.

"We found that while our major is growing in the number of students, the number of women wasn't growing with the total growth," Stank said.

Mollenkopf and the other female faculty members partnered with the supply chain forum to begin a conversation about how to generate interest in supply chain from female students. They called the research group Nexxus. Students soon got word of the effort and wanted in.

Now Nexxus is a student organization that holds meetings to discuss women in the supply chain industry and works to spread the word about opportunities in the industry.

"A lot of companies now are starting to hire women into roles more often, but I think where companies are starting to lack is upper management," Hawley, 2016 Nexxus president, said. "That will change over time, but it needs to start now."

Mollenkopf, Nexxus faculty adviser, said the problem the industry faces is similar to the same problem STEM fields face — stereotyping.

"We have a lot of stereotypes to get over," she said. "We've got to educate women about the opportunities that exist in our profession. We hear stereotypes that supply chain is about trucks and dirty warehouses, but when you step back and think about what happens in supply chain, it's all about relationships — relationships with suppliers, relationships with customers and relationships with the essential teams within your organization."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Cortney Roark 

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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