In the supply chain, nothing happens in a straight line. The flexibility of supply chain management (SCM) career paths and day-to-day responsibilities opens opportunities across many different functions. Further, broad transferable skills create accessible entry points for problem-solving professionals new to the field to land supply chain jobs and learn more about supply chain as they move through the ranks.
So what are those ranks, and how exactly does one move around between them? Read on to learn about the pillars of the supply chain industry, some of the many available career paths, and how to transition or fast-track your supply chain career through online learning.
Supply Chain Functions and Career Paths
There are four main pillars of the supply chain: Planning, production, sourcing, and transportation. While you may eventually specialize in one area, it’s critical to gain foundational knowledge in each and understand the full process from start to finish.
"Companies going forward are looking for people that can think holistically rather than just in their silos."
“I think companies going forward are looking for people that can think holistically rather than just in their silos. Even if I'm a procurement person, I still need to know how the decision I make on what I purchase is going to impact the folks that are actually going to make the product and those that are going to move the product around. So you really don't serve yourself well if you only think about one aspect,” said Dr. John Fowler, Motorola Professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (ASU) and instructor for ASU’s online supply chain management master’s program.
This requirement for a holistic understanding of the full supply chain lends to more flexible supply chain careers paths, with accessible entry points for career opportunities across all four pillars and many options for pathways as you progress your career.
While planning is a key part of every link in the supply chain, there are planning-specific roles to consider, such as demand planner, production planner, capacity planner, logistics resource planner, and load planner. These careers tend to follow the most linear path of the four pillars, but still benefit from a holistic view of the entire supply chain.
In a supply chain planning role, you’ll be responsible for tasks like analyzing performance and developing optimization strategies, inventory management (forecasting future demand to avoid over- or under-stocking), streamlining manufacturing processes, coordinating human resources and warehouse or transportation assets, planning the most efficient delivery routes based on customer orders, and more.
If you’re detail oriented and love efficiency, planning may be the perfect place for you within the supply chain. Planning also presents a major opportunity to optimize processes in environmentally friendly ways, so it can be a good fit for those who are passionate about sustainability.
If you’re entering the field via a manufacturing or warehousing job, then you know the realities of life on the floor, and likely have ideas about how things could be done better. This experience can powerfully inform a logistics management role.
The production pillar includes engineering, quality, purchasing, and warehouse management positions. Inventory and supply can also fall under this umbrella. Opportunities include roles like packaging engineer, safety and environmental manager, plant manager, maintenance supervisor, quality manager, and more.
In production, your job description may include researching and selecting new materials, partners, suppliers, or manufacturers, developing and organizing production schedules, establishing timelines and budgets with clients and internal departments, and streamlining processes based on budgetary data.
Like planning roles, sourcing roles require a good head for logistics, including the ability to balance supply and demand. However, as a sourcing supply chain professional, your focus will be less on optimizing processes and more on interfacing with (or even managing) people.
In sourcing, daily tasks include things like building contractual agreements with raw materials suppliers, negotiating product prices at a commercial level, and supplier service. Once you’ve purchased goods, you’ll also be responsible for inbound transportation of those goods. You may hold a job title like strategic sourcing manager, procurement specialist, category manager, purchasing manager, or simply, buyer.
Optimizing the supply chain can drive down the cost of goods and inventory, thereby increasing profit margins—so if you’re the sort of person who’s driven by the bottom line and gains satisfaction from maximizing profits, sourcing may be the place for you.
For professionals looking to advance supply chain careers and build knowledge in each of the four pillars, edX offers a supply chain management MicroMasters program from MITx. “This is one of the best professional development opportunities I’ve participated in throughout my 23 years in the supply chain industry,” said Gerry Nelson, VP, North American Surface Transportation, C.H. Robinson. “The program opened my eyes to the challenges being faced daily and practical tools I can apply to help C.H. Robinson continue to solve logistics problems for companies across the globe.”
For professionals looking to advance supply chain careers and build knowledge in each of the four pillars, edX offers a supply chain management MicroMasters program from MITx. "This is one of the best professional development opportunities I've participated in throughout my 23 years in the supply chain industry," said Gerry Nelson, VP, North American Surface Transportation, C.H. Robinson. "The program opened my eyes to the challenges being faced daily and practical tools I can apply to help C.H. Robinson continue to solve logistics problems for companies across the globe."
Outwardly, logistics and transportation are the most visible link in the supply chain, as they involve the actual storage, movement, and delivery of goods, services, or information. And since actual movement is involved, this is another pillar where it’s very possible to get started with a hands-on position, like stocking shelves for Amazon or driving a delivery truck.
Of course, having some amount of formal training can catapult you past some of those stepping stones, whether that training is a traditional bachelor’s degree or online learning and certifications.
Transportation includes job titles such as global supply chain director, transport administrator, inventory controller, warehouse manager, and reverse logistics manager.
If you like to see the tangible fruits of your labor, transportation could be a good place for you, as you’ll get to see inventory moving in and out, making its way into the hands of the final customer (or back, if you’re in reverse logistics, a.k.a. returns—a rapidly growing category since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses from brick-and-mortar to digital storefronts).
How to Navigate or Advance Your Supply Chain Career
A basic understanding of end-to-end supply chain foundations is critical for any career path, but not a prerequisite for breaking into the field. For example, to hold an entry-level jobs such as a supply chain analyst, buyer, or coordinator does not require years of experience in the supply chain industry and leaves many possible career paths open for exploration. Building specific supply chain skills, such as demand planning, relationship management, strategic sourcing, inventory optimization, can help you advance a supply chain management career, but there’s also a lot of overlap with other areas and industries.
Take stock of your skill set and use modular online learning courses and programs to fill gaps and get you closer to your goals. For instance, if you’re an information systems professional, in addition to those transferable skills you could upskill in communications and supply chain foundations to enter the field.
Leverage Relevant Experience in Other Industries
Supply chain touches more departments than almost any other field: sales and marketing, research and development, finance, legal, public relations, and more. That means it’s possible to get a foot in the door even if you started your career doing something completely different. In fact, having a background in another field can give you an advantage, especially if you’re aiming to establish yourself in one of the emerging supply chain business careers such as data scientist, risk manager, or business development lead.
Research shows that developing hybrid skill sets, such as adding analytics knowledge to your supply chain skills, can help set you apart and accelerate growth across many different fields.
For example, organizations need to answer questions and adjust their strategies based on huge amounts of data. The faster someone can make sense of that data and act on it, the more successful the business will be. So, a person with a background in analytics could excel as a supply chain solution design analyst.
Many larger companies also retain supply chain IT professionals to manage logistics technology. Even smaller companies rely on warehouse management and enterprise resource planning systems that require IT understanding. So if you’re already working in the supply chain field, adding technology or data science skills can help you level up, and if you’re coming from this background, it could make you a very attractive candidate for leadership roles.
A Launchpad into C-Suite
While supply chain careers were once viewed as “blue collar” or purely administrative, that perception has changed with the realization that a successful supply chain is part of a successful overall business strategy.
For example, Amazon would hardly be the behemoth of eCommerce that it is today without an incredibly efficient supply chain strategy that can turn orders around on a dime. More and more, supply chain professionals are using the first part of their career to learn the ins and outs of their organization across those four supply chain pillars, then advancing into the C-suite or beyond.
Tim Cook began his career at Apple in the 1990s in a supply chain role. After developing a reputation for transforming supply chain operations, reducing inventory and costs, and developing the international supplier base, it’s little surprise that Cook was first in line for the CEO position formerly held by Steve Jobs.
Take Stock of Your Transferable Skills
If you’re looking to break into or advance in the supply chain field, remember that your supply chain knowledge and experience are not the only things you have going for you. Supply chain is an incredible application of many fundamental business, operations, and project management skills, and the areas with high transferability to a supply chain career continue to evolve, such as marketing and information systems. You likely have skills and strengths that would serve you well in your dream role. You’re also likely to hone these skills as you advance in any supply chain career.
- Data analysis
- Relationship management
- Eye for detail
- Project management
- Scheduling and time management
- Risk mitigation
- Conflict resolution
"Students take a project management class [as part of ASU's supply chain master's program], so they get some experience in how to run big projects," Dr. Fowler. "A lot of supply chain professionals end up running projects where they're transforming the supply chain in some way. And certainly through COVID, there's been a lot of transformational supply chains."
Non-Linear Career Paths, Endless Upskilling Opportunities
As the world and supply chains evolve, so will the skills needed to succeed. The most important tip for advancing your career? Keep learning.
If you're still figuring out your career goals, take advantage of the flexibility in logistics and supply chain to learn as much as you can. There will always be room to take a lateral step from, for example, a production supervisor or manager role into logistics, distribution, or broader supply chain management and supply chain manager roles.
"If you're not continuing to improve your skill set, you're going to get left behind."
“I think there's a clear need for that,” said Dr. Fowler. “If you're not continuing to improve your skill set, you're going to get left behind.”