Talking About the Next Generation of Supply Chain Talent with SCM Executive Sara Curwen

May 12, 2015

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One often-discussed aspect of today’s Supply Chain talent picture—both on the Argentus blog and other outlets that cover issues in the field—is an increasing anxiety about how to get young people into Supply Chain. There seems to be consensus among Supply Chain thought leaders that there’s a deficit of talent on the horizon, and that schools aren’t doing enough to educate young people about Supply Chain’s career potential.

It’s true that most people don’t grow up imagining themselves as Supply Chain professionals, and a common story among candidates in Supply Chain is that they found their way into the field by accident. But given the fact that most of those accidental-entrants into the field find themselves addicted to its fast pace, dynamic nature, global scope, financial rewards, and opportunities to lead businesses at its most strategic, is it really so far-fetched to imagine a future in which young kids do grow up imagining themselves working in Supply Chain?

This week, we spoke with Sara Curwen, a seasoned Supply Chain and Operations executive in the Food Production industry. Sara is on the forefront of tackling the issue of getting young people interested in Supply Chain. When we spoke, she had just visited Waterloo University to speak with Grade 9 girls about the career possibilities in mathematics-related (so called “STEM”) fields, as well as to speak with University students just about to graduate. In our interview, Sara spoke about how to get the next generation interested in Supply Chain, as well as her advice for young professionals, and where she’s noticing skill gaps on the junior end among new graduates.

How to Get New Entrants into the Field:

“I asked all these grade 9 girls, who knows what Supply Chain is?” says Curwen. “And apart from one, none of them had a clue. So, I don’t know exactly how you get it into the curriculum. It’s still somewhat of an unknown field. There needs to be a lot of education about what it is. Even companies have different definitions, but it should include the physical and information flows from customer orders to fulfillment.  “

Despite this, the fundamental concepts behind Supply Chain are pretty easy to understand, so when speaking in front of these students Ms. Curwen was able to distill the practice using the example of Food Production, which is her main industry of expertise.

“I said, these are the types of questions we need to answer: imagine you’re making bread and your first question is, how many loaves of bread do you need to make tomorrow? I gave the example of Hot Cross buns which sell 10 times faster at Easter than any other time of the year. So you look at the history and speak to Sales and find out whether any of the products will be sold at $1.99 instead of $2.99. I mentioned that there are products where we want to hold inventory, and the more inventory we have the more it will cost, so that will be a problem. I talked to them about transportation concerns, and tried to show some of the problems you will encounter on a daily basis.”

“I asked a couple of the kids if they knew what they wanted to do and a couple of them surprisingly said, ‘I want to be an actuary.’ Sometimes it’s as simple as hearing somebody speak about a particular career and they think, ‘that might be interesting.’ So I think more Supply Chain people have to go out to career fairs and get kids interested.”

Skill Gaps at the Junior End:

“One of the things that’s really important within Supply Chain is being able to speak with different functions within the business,” says Curwen, “whether it be Sales & Marketing, Finance, R&D or other disciplines. I’ve been noticing a gap there. We used to hire a lot of students who were between third and fourth year of their degrees. Analytically, they’d be very bright. You’d give them data and they could analyze it. But in terms of their ability to communicate key messages, that’s where new grads are often on the weaker side. Also, they may be great with databases and the analytical side of things, they are missing out on perspective of the business as a whole and therefore, their analysis could be completely wrong and they just won’t be able to see that.

So how do you help supplement these skills within Supply Chain and other mathematics-focused disciplines? “General business classes,” says Curwen. “More classes focused on communications, as well as presentation skills would supplement curriculums so that students who want to do the more analytical jobs are able to function well within the business once they graduate.”

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Thanks to Sara Curwen for the great conversation. If you’re in Supply Chain or other STEM-related fields, what are your thoughts about how to get young people involved? And what skill gaps are you seeing amongst new graduates and new people entering the field? We’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments! 

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