What Supply Chain Skills Do Employers Want?

Students often ask what they can do to prepare themselves for supply chain employment opportunities such as internships, co-ops, or that first full-time job after graduation. Get started early! Focus on what employers want! This article will help you understand the types of skills supply chain employers are looking for today. It isn’t just about classwork learned technical competencies (known as the hard skills). There are many soft skills that can be demonstrated in your resume, your cover letter, and your communications. Of course, the most critical point to demonstrate the soft skills is in the interview.

Some Hard Skills

Just about every supply chain-related degree program, whether in business or engineering, has a set of core classes that just about everyone takes around the country. Those aren’t the ones we are trying to highlight. Your focus should be on the ones that are in high demand. We’ll provide a few below to consider adding to your toolbox to make you stand out to employers.

Data Analytics. No matter whether it is in procuring materials, selecting transportation options, determining pick routes or slotting in a warehouse, or trying to locate facilities across the globe, data analytics is one of the most incredibly valuable supply chain skills out there. Learning how to take data sets and turn them into either visual representations that support a decision or finding the connections between groups of data, the ability to process large sets of data is highly valued by industry. It isn’t necessary to be a math whiz (it helps), but you should have either taken a class or performed a project that made you take sets of data and turn them into recommended actions. That is what you want to be able to tell a potential employer. It is more about having taken the process from raw data set to clear recommendations that will catch the employer’s attention. Data-driven decision-making using the right tools to sift through data sets and draw conclusions. Make it a priority. It works across every aspect of supply chain. Even if you don’t enjoy it or plan to do it for a living, there is value to having the basic understanding that enables you to better cut through data-driven fog.

Finance. Our conversations with industry professionals always seem to result in them talking about how they wish they had understood more as a student about how financials are impacted by supply chain decisions. Not just the best answer as far as efficiency, productivity, or cost itself is concerned, but more about how a decision affects the top and bottom lines of the company. Take a finance class beyond basic cost accounting (which tends to focus on where cost items go in the system) and really get into the financial aspects of what really drives corporate success and the aspects of supply chain that support them.

Risk Management. It started well before Covid, but has certainly become stronger in the 2020s. Learning how to identify and quantify risks, then choosing a balance between risk-aversion and risk-embracing is both an art and a technical skill. Pay attention to case studies showing how companies get into trouble by not understanding some basic principles related to risks and how to use them to competitive advantage.

Forecasting. We get it. All forecasts are wrong. However, having a forecast that is less wrong than the competition is a winning situation. Sports are full of wrongness. Failure more often than success (missed shots, passes, etc.). The difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter in baseball might appear small, but it is really measured in millions of dollars. The same is true in supply chain. Being a little better at being right on the forecast can be a multi-million dollar decision, even if you are often wrong.

Project Management. Dive deep into how big projects are constructed and managed. Show an employer that you have the ability to see the bigger picture by laying out projects into the tasks that are critical is highly valuable. A project management class itself is helpful if it isn’t just about the mechanics of project management software. It needs to have you perform a multi-step project plan focused on supply chain.

Resource Levels and Placement. This isn’t really just about the amount of materials and where they should be located to achieve the response level required by your internal or external customers. This is about where you should have resources and at what levels and at what times. Those resources may be equipment or people. It can appear to be a skill that is very focused on stuff, but resource allocation is really a basic skill that any manager, director, VP, or C-level executive has to understand well.

Some Soft Skills

Our conversations with industry professionals consistently emphasize soft skills over hard skills. They have a basic assumption that any accredited supply chain-related degree will provide the hard skills needed (they all don’t, but typically provide opportunities within your electives), so they look carefully at students during the interview and their interactions with others during the interview process to see how they can deal with a variety of questions and situations.

Relationship Building. How good are you at the basics of the initial impression? At really engaging with someone to learn more about them and having a good exchange of information that matches the situation? What is your network like and how do you build and maintain it? They are really wanting to see if you are a good team player and a good representative of the company. Doesn’t matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, stretch yourself and engage with people in a wide variety of situations inside and outside the classroom.

Passion. Be able to explain what kind of work and projects you have enjoyed and why. Employers can sense the energy you bring to an interview. Especially when you are beyond the initial hello and are explaining why you are in supply chain, the work you have enjoyed, and why you are excited to be in the field and interviewing with that company. Companies feed on that kind of energy and value it.

Communication. Wow, does this one come up A LOT. Whether it is operating within a team, engaging with a customer or supplier, or trying to make a presentation to management in a way that speaks their language, you are constantly being evaluated for your communication. Practice writing. A lot. Practice speaking. A lot. Make note of times when you were impressed about the way someone communicated a point and turn it into one of your own soft skills. Don’t forget that communication also requires good listening skills. Remember the old adage that you were given two ears and one mouth. Use them in those proportions. All things being equal, the best communicator gets the business, and the promotion. Take public speaking courses to help your ability. Volunteer to make presentations for teams.

Dealing with Change. We hear this one a lot as well. Employers often say, if you want a job that gives you consistency, don’t get into supply chain. Because of the constant change that is part of goods and resources flowing through supply chains with so many factors that can shift at any time, employers want to see that you are flexible, agile, and unflustered by changes. Make sure you have a situation or two where you can tell potential employers about when you faced changes and how you dealt with them.

Management and Leadership. Not everyone is ready to be a leader. However, it is valuable to try it in teams and in volunteer roles while you are in school. Find out whether you might enjoy it yourself, but also learn as much as you can about how good leaders are developed. Sometimes courses on leadership and management can help you with valuable lessons about the kinds of things leaders notice about the best team players. Learn how to be better at being a contributor that managers and leaders value. If you are asked to step up and take a greater management and leadership role, you better understand how you would like to not just be viewed, but how to make teams of contributors successful yourself.

Other Considerations

Ask your professors and go to career fairs to get a better feel for what they look for in new hires. If your school provides the opportunity to connect with alumni volunteers working in supply chain roles, ask for the opportunity to talk. Also listen carefully to podcasts, like the Supply Chain Careers Podcast, to listen about what Supply Chain professionals value.

Joining available clubs and supply chain association student chapters to have opportunities to interact with professionals and ask about their typical days (spoiler alert, SC may not have many days that are just typical). It helps you build many of the soft skills as well.

Consume the acronym soup. Most professions have their list of terminology that seems like fake words if you listen in on their conversations. Supply chain has plenty. Read trade magazines, blogs, and professional articles on Supply Chain Careers extensively to get to know the terminology in context. Not just the definitions, but more about how it is connected to improved supply chain management.

Now that you know which supply chain skills are sought after by employers, begin to work on shaping and crafting your own skillset!