Education for tomorrow’s supply chain

Dr. Alicia Martinez de Yuso, Research Office Technician at ZLC.

Logistics and supply chain practice is changing at a rate not seen since the invention of the railway, or the shipping container. And whereas previous transformations involved individual technical breakthroughs building on and modifying existing methods, there are now multiple drivers as diverse as digitisation and climate change. The scope of the intellectual framework, the education and training, required to devise and operate the new supply chains is similarly expanding and diversifying.

As part of the EU’s Next-Net project, ZLC has been leading a study of the existing provision and future requirements for the education and training of supply chain professionals, with the aim of developing a guideline with  recommendations that can inform policy across a wide range of supply-chain related activity, from basic research to industrial and transport strategy.

We have looked at the courses and study programmes now available across the range of providers including universities, private training companies and professional associations, and also at certification and standards frameworks, where they exist, around the world. The headline findings are firstly that provision is massively diverse, and secondly that the scope and content of education and training is falling well behind the pace of technical and other developments. There is, anyway, a shortage of skilled supply chain professionals across Europe and even for these, the gap between industry’s requirements for skills and competences, and the training or retraining that professionals receive, exists and is growing. In many cases, training is either not being given or where it is the content is often already obsolete.

The skills gaps identified in Next-Net are not just technological, although the list here is long and growing – blockchain, Internet of Things, AI and machine learning, data analytics, autonomous vehicles, human-machine interaction are just a few of the transformative technologies that are poorly understood and taught. But there are also education and training requirements around environmental and social issues, changing global trade relations, new ways of configuring supply chains and business models, and a range of human and personal competencies, that are vital to the supply chains of the future, but which are largely absent from ‘traditional’ education and training provision. Initiatives like Next-Net, among others, help ZLC keep up with all these advancements and incorporate them into their educational programs.

Otherwise, the implications of these shortfalls would be profound at every level. Unless these skills and competencies are available to create and operate the new supply chains, not only will European industry fall short in economic and productivity terms, but it will be unable to meet its environmental and social obligations. ‘Industry 4.0’, as the new set of technologies is often termed, may appear to be on a slow burn, but it will take off explosively. Without sufficient professionals with the right skills, large European companies will be left behind in the implementation scramble, whilst smaller companies, unable to adopt or adapt, may simply become irrelevant. There is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem – at the level of the individual company or supply chain, it is hard to give the required training until the new technologies or other conditions are already in place, but this cannot happen properly without the necessary expertise already available.

The European Union can do much to avert this threat. The EU already has many points of contact with industry and with learning providers through a variety of programmes and projects including the ‘New Skills Agenda’. However, initiatives tend to be sector by sector, and fail to recognise the full range of supply chain related thinking required. Existing EU-industry-trainer alliances are good, but they could be improved.

We believe policy makers should evaluate existing programmes in terms of quality and relevance, identifying and replacing obsolete content and promoting the new competencies and skills required and identified by industry. Training providers should be supported in their efforts to enlarge and improve the quality of supply chain teaching, and to continue to review this frequently.

Companies and sectors also need support in their ability to map existing and absent competencies, foreseeing future needs, and planning training programmes (so that training providers in turn can understand and meet the requirements). Mapping needs to cover not just technical positions but the needs of managerial and decision-making professionals, and recognise that traditional academic programmes are not necessarily appropriate to the upskilling of 30-year professionals with a long trajectory in the sector who need specific education adapted to the new trends and last developments.

There is a case for encouraging companies to adopt collaborative, rather than competitive, approaches to addressing industry-wide skills issues. The Commission also needs to ensure that industries receive and understand news of the new trends and tendencies in supply chain management, especially perhaps as revealed by EU-funded research under the Horizon 2020 and other programmes.

Funding of training is always an issue. There is scope for policymakers to consider incentives, subsidies and credits at both individual and corporate level. Existing and future EU-funded skills programmes (such as Erasmus+ and Blueprint) should fully reflect supply chain needs. The broad reach of supply chain also means that its skills requirements should have a central place in EU adult learning and higher education policies. There is an opportunity to add a lot of value to EU programmes here.

Finally, we believe there is a case to be made for the promotion of an EU-wide certification and standards scheme for supply chain professionals. This would have the benefits both of providing a platform to establish and advance standards of professional supply chain education and training, and of facilitating the movement of professionals across sectors and across borders by improving the transparency and comparability of qualifications.

To learn more about the recommendations we are making, please contact [email protected].