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Supply chain management and logistics is a field for the future

Until the COVID-19 pandemic slammed head-on into the global supply chain, it’s fair to say most of us didn’t give much thought about how the goods we buy end up on store shelves. Getting what we needed was easy prior to March 2020. You went to the store and found what you were looking for and bought it, or you placed it into an online shopping cart and a few days later, it appeared in your mailbox. What started out as a somewhat amusing, yet frustrating shortage of toilet paper soon became much, much more. The impact of the pandemic on the entire global supply chain is still being felt than nearly three years later and we have now learned important lessons on how vital a functional supply chain is to everyone.

Expert advice
Dr. Kelsey Taylor is an assistant professor and The Associates Fellow in Supply Chain Management at the University of Manitoba’s I.H. Asper School of Business, teaching students about supply chain management and logistics. Over the last two years, she’s seen how much pressure her field has been under, how vital it is to the economy, and how much work is ahead to make our supply chains more resilient, adaptable and sustainable in the long-term.

“The lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic are incredible,” says Taylor. “We have learned that lean supply chains may not be able to withstand big shocks. The pandemic didn’t hit just one part of the supply chain. It hit all of it at once.” The global supply chain saw major disruptions from end to end, sending shock waves across the world.

Manufacturers saw (and continue to grapple with) shortages on raw materials to make goods, with large swathes of their workforce unable to work due to illness or isolation. Even when goods were ready to be shipped, many forms of transportation were backlogged due to labour shortages and even lack of containers to carry goods. On the receiving end, retailers struggled to source in-demand goods and get them onto store shelves and dealt with consumers wanting to ‘stock up’ because of fear.

“The pandemic taught us that companies need to manage risk better and not become too dependent on certain parts of the chain,” says Taylor. “For example, relying on one or two suppliers for a vital product can create serious problems for your business if those suppliers are suddenly shut down.”

The future of supply chain
Despite the many issues the global supply chain has dealt with since the rise of COVID-19, an opportunity has presented itself as the dust settles and companies regroup. Now has never been a better time to take a hard look at the lessons learned and how to make supply chains flexible, resilient and sustainable. “As we build back from the pandemic, it’s the perfect time to make changes that can make our supply chain more adaptable to shocks, like extreme weather or global problems,” says Taylor. “We can also take the time to deal with issues around sustainability, which are only going to grow over time.” 

For example, companies are under more pressure to examine their environmental and social footprint including who they are doing business with and what those companies are doing. “Governments are beginning to demand more from organizations when it comes to things like waste and emissions from more than just their own operations,” says Taylor. “Companies are starting to become accountable for the suppliers they choose to work with.” As well, consumers are savvier than ever, and are demanding to know where the goods they purchase are coming from, what they are made from, who is making them, and in what conditions. “Supply chains are going to have to become more innovative in order to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, and the need to build systems that can manage shocks, handle changing demands, and address pressing sustainability issues,” says Taylor.

Learn the ropes
The Asper School of Business has recently launched its own professional Master in Supply Chain Management and Logistics (MSCM), a two-year program designed to prepare future supply chain leaders for the ever-important field. Launched in 2021, the program is designed with a built-in practicum requirement. “It’s a unique program in Canada,” says Taylor. “Compared to an MBA, this program is specialized to supply chain management, and offers real world work experience through practicum.” As well, the school is revamping the Supply Chain Management major to its BComm program to ensure all students are exposed to this important functional area of modern business.

“There is a lot of demand for supply chain professionals today, with good reason,” says Taylor. “It’s knowledge that can be used in many places. Being able to move people and goods efficiently, safely and sustainably is a skill many organizations are looking for.” With so much uncertainty in the business world, supply chain is the profession of the future.

Tony Wu is a graduate student at Asper, studying the Master of Supply Chain Management and Logistics (MSCM) program’s first cohort. Wu came to Canada in 2015 from China and graduated with his BComm degree from Asper in early 2021. A professor suggested he investigate the new Asper program in supply chain, and Wu started the program part-time in September. Wu is already working in supply chain management and is eager to apply what he learns in his work.

Like Taylor, he sees the many lessons that COVID-19 has taught about supply chains and agrees that companies and organizations need to build supply chains can not only react to shocks but also be proactive about managing risk. “Supply chains can be impacted by more than just pandemics,” says Wu. “The 2008 financial crisis also had a significant impact, and now with interest rates rising, it’s time to prepare supply chains to be ready for any financial changes. Planning ahead is vital.”

He also sees how sustainability will continue to grow in importance when it comes to supply chain management. “Our supply chain is global, and companies need to know who they are doing business with,” says Wu. “Companies have to consider the source of goods beyond just the bottom line.”

Wu’s studies are also giving him more than just theory. He says his graduate classes are places to not only learn knowledge and skills, but also hear from others and their ideas. “Our in-class discussions and information exchanges are fantastic for learning,” says Wu. “Working together with other students is building our creativity and critical thinking skills which are necessary for today’s supply chain work.”

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