10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Supply Chain Management Career
You’ve scoured the internet for logistics jobs numerous times, read up on job descriptions and researched all that goes into a supply chain management career. Supply chain management (SCM) can be an extremely appealing choice for those who know what it involves. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine businesses today functioning without it. For another, the puzzle-like, problem-solving nature of the work can be an addictive challenge for the right mind.
But you can’t really see a day in the life of a supply chain management professional by reading job descriptions written by employers and recruiters. Before starting any career, you want to know the details from within to feel secure in your decision.
We enlisted a handful of supply chain management professionals to help shed some light on the topic. If you are asking, Is supply chain management a good career for me?—read on. We asked experts to share some of the important things they wish they knew before starting a supply chain management career.
10 Things you should know about supply chain management careers
1. A day in the life of a supply chain manager is never boring
Perhaps you’ve had jobs where you felt that every day dragged on, and you couldn’t wait for the shift to be over. With a career in supply chain management, you can expect every day to be unpredictable—for better or for worse.
“You often serve the role of firefighter as there are any number of events that create a crisis for those working in supply chain,” says Bryce Bowman, founder of People First Planning. With so many moving parts, there’s lots of room for scrambling. Bowman says a plant could go offline for unplanned maintenance or a critical shipment from a vendor could be delayed. “These events often require you to take immediate action to minimize their impact, and you will have little advance notice.”
“I have operated a machine myself to keep the process moving,” says Mike Wolfe, director of operations at Delgado Stone Distributors. “When we have a deadline to meet, we make sure we meet it. No one wants to let the team or customer down.”
While it can be challenging at times, this aspect of the career is also a highlight, according to Bowman. “Your workday will often look quite different than you had envisioned when you left for the office that morning!”
2. The career goes way beyond the movement and storage of goods
Supply chain management professionals oversee materials, information and finances as products or parts make their way from supplier to manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. But the responsibilities can vary greatly depending on your industry and organization.
“The thing I wish I had known before I started my career in supply chain management is how diverse the supply chain is,” says Lucas Robinson, chief marketing officer of Crediful. “As if it’s not hard enough to know what area of supply chain you want to work in, every company has a different take on what the supply chain is, which functions are involved in it and how its management fits into the business generally.”
Robinson says it can be surprising to learn that the movement and storage of goods is only one part of what the career entails—though that simpler view may have been accurate a few decades ago. “Today though, with many companies taking a broader view of their supply chains, procurement and even manufacturing can fall under the auspices of a supply chain leader rather than being managed as individual functions,” Robinson says.
3. Supply chain management is data driven
“Supply chain is data intense, and it is important to quickly draw conclusions from large amounts of data,” Bowman says. He explains that with most businesses operating with thousands (or tens of thousands) of unique products, the information load is tremendous. “It can be daunting when you need to use this data to answer questions. You should be agile and able to quickly extract and summarize relevant data in a timely fashion.”
4. Supply chain management demands people skills
“One thing I wish I had known before beginning my career in supply chain management is that it’s more about being a people person,” says Hew Blair, chairman and buying director of Justerini & Brooks Ltd. Blair says most of what you read about supply chain management focuses on the processes, best practices and technology critical to the industry. “But the reality is that no supply chain can exist without the teams of professionals who perform the processes, illustrate the best practices and operate all that technology.”
“I know many supply chain leaders who began their career after graduation and were initially overwhelmed by the degree to which they had to demonstrate teamwork, leadership and especially customer service skills,” Blair says.
5. A broader knowledge base is critical for supply chain management careers
If you picture supply chain management as a series of connect-the-dots involving lots of complex variables for each choice, you might see why extra knowledge about every dot on the board can be a serious asset. “Don't take only courses in the fields of operations research and supply chain management, even if that is your intended career path,” says Hayato Yoshida, co-founder of Wagyu Beef.
“Instead, take courses in a multitude of fields in order to broaden your knowledge and draw insights from each one.”
A well-rounded mix of education and experience can be a huge asset when working in a complex field—so do what you can to seek out new knowledge and practical skills. Yoshida suggests brushing up on programming and computer science-related skills where you can as well.
6. Supply chain management professionals also manage people
You can get into supply chain management with a great head for the logistical aspects of the role. But at a certain point, knowing how to manage other people is just as important—if not more important—than knowing how to manage a supply chain, Yoshida says. “A lot of people have the technical expertise to succeed in this field, but those who rise to the top usually have very strong interpersonal skills as well.”
The ability to develop the relationships you want is an essential ability in SCM, according to James Chong, founder of Top Generator. “As a student, I didn't realize how important delegation would be later on in my life. Being an expert on the low-level technical aspects of this industry can only get you so far, and delegation is critical to reaching the next level in your career.”
7. Supply chain management can be pressure packed
“SCM is competitive,” Wolfe says. “A mistake or missed deadline can cost a company a few hundred thousand dollars and open the door to a competitor.”
Logistics is a fast-paced, demanding and competitive industry. With so many other companies vying for the same business, it’s important to come to work and give it your all.
Wolfe adds that you should always be asking yourself what’s next and how you can take your company to the next step. Being passionate about what you do is essential; if you are, then you will grow and learn exponentially.
8. Networking should be a priority
“Someone I work with once told me, ‘What you know is important; who you know is the key,’” says Melissa Patel, CPSM, sourcing and account manager team leader at Field Fastener. “My advice to people moving into this career is that it is all about relationships.” She explains that taking time to meet and listen with suppliers can go a long way; when you need guidance or a favor, you will have those relationships to fall back on.
Patel also recommends finding a mentor, especially when you are just beginning your career. This can be your manager, someone you work with or someone you encounter as you work in the industry. Mentors can be invaluable sources of knowledge and can help you develop more expertise than you would if you were on your own.
“The key is to watch and listen. Ask questions,” Patel says. “Let others who have navigated this career path successfully help you along the paved path.”
9. A great supply chain is environmentally friendly
When you think of careers that help the earth, supply chain management probably isn’t the first thing you envision. But creating a more efficient supply chain can have a very positive impact on the environment, according to Bowman. “For instance, you might optimize shipments to ensure delivery trucks are fully loaded, or you may work on projects that result in less wasted product.”
One project in Bowman’s career saved his company over $1 million each year in reduced inventory waste. “Besides generating savings for my employer, we also eliminated tons of waste that would have ended up in landfills.”
10. There are a variety of career opportunities
Supply chain management is an umbrella term that includes many different positions. Patel says a typical path includes beginning as an expeditor then advancing to become a buyer and moving upward from there. Other job titles include operations analyst, loading operator, sales, production manager and logistician.
In addition to all the advancement potential in the industry, the earning potential is also looking bright. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, logisticians reported a median annual salary of $74,750 in 2019.1 When you consider that a Bachelor’s degree is the average entry qualification for this role and that the opportunities in this career are steadily growing, you might feel more confident about finding a bright future for yourself in SCM.
Be strategic about your future
Supply chain management is a dynamic industry that tends to attract strategic thinkers. “Always think five moves ahead,” Chong says. “Many people get bogged down in their day-to-day tasks and completely miss the bigger picture when it comes to strategizing about their business and their career.”
Now that you can project more of a picture onto careers in supply chain management, do you have the information you need? Visit the Supply Chain and Logistics Management degree page to learn more about how this focused education option can help you set the foundation for success in logistics.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed February, 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in February 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2021. Insights from Wolfe and Patel remain from the original article.