Second quarter 2022
There's a silver lining from the headlines made by the devastating effects of the pandemic on intermodal and supply chain logistics: high school and college students alike see robust opportunities as the next generation of leaders in an industry that until recently lived mostly in the shadows of the global economy.
Educators told Intermodal Insights it's an opportunity for schools to broaden recruiting, expand academic programs, and engage employers searching for new talent in a fiercely competitive job market.
Schools in this article all benefit from the Intermodal Association of North America's scholarship program, which since 2007 has provided close to $4 million in scholarships to help support students in programs focused on freight and intermodal transportation.
"It's a new context for a broader audience," says Dr. David Nowicki, professor, Logistics and Operations Management at the University of North Texas. "Supply chain is on peoples' minds more now. And if they don't see it at first, [students] are gravitating toward it once in the business school. It's a huge opportunity for them, and we want to make sure that students are work-ready and accelerate that process."
An hour north of Dallas, UNT has long been a recruiting target for BNSF Railway and other nearby logistics companies, large and small. A paid internship is a required component of the curriculum, and there are typically three to five available internships for every student. "We target parents with that data in our marketing," he says, "that, and the fact that full-time jobs start at around $68,000." The school boasts an 80% job offer rate at graduation, and the remainder within three months of that date.
"Soft skills such as leadership and critical thinking are what make more students work-ready," says Nowicki. "Of course we teach the fundamental principles of supply chain management, but it's soft skills that get them in the door. Employers want to know if you can think through a problem."
At North Texas, IANA funding underwrites a pair of intermodal case study competitions each year – both won in 2021 by UNT teams. "It's the first thing recruiters look for, if a student participated in the competition," Nowicki says. "The IANA scholarships range from $30k to $5k, and are highly coveted." On the East Coast, the University of North Florida is equipping logistics students with the kind of technology and data management skills that are driving businesses of all kinds.
"We want our students to think globally and act locally, that is, to understand global transportation and think situationally," says Dawn Russell, associate professor, Coggin College of Business at UNF. "Tech and data management are a growing area. We run [enterprise management software] SAP in our lab.
We want them to have that access and experience, to think it through, make mistakes, feel the pain, and get to a goal."
Russell emphasizes the benefit of UNF's interdisciplinary curriculum offering, which includes economics and accounting, designed to set students up with broader business skills for the logistics and supply chain workplace. Simulations, too, aide problem solving. "Critical thinking is the ability to break things down and build them up in a way that creates opportunity," Russell says. "What is right for one company at a given time isn't right for another. Simulations really make the case for experience."
Importantly, the school is eyeing accessibility with mid-afternoon classes to accommodate working students, and modalities that range from in-person to online or a hybrid mix, especially for older master's candidates with outside life responsibilities.
"Understanding the key role of intermodalism in supporting the diversified global economy has become one of the key areas of student interest," says Thomas M. Corsi, academic director, MS Supply Chain Program, Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland. "We are designing an online intermodal course for delivery to IANA scholarship schools and member companies in Fall 2022. IANA recognized a significant gap in opportunities for learning about intermodalism and provided assistance through the scholarship program to develop the course. We believe that the course will help fill an important gap in the curriculum."
Students are gravitating toward supply chain/logistics/intermodal classes, Corsi says, in order to get a better understanding of what is happening and why it is happening. Along with technical, IT and software skills, "more than anything students pursuing a career in logistics/intermodal transportation at an executive level need to be 'people' persons. That is, personal interactions are a critical component of an executive's job in logistics/supply chain. [A]n ability to get along with and interact with other professionals is the key to having a successful career." Other educators believe that finding the industry's future leaders should begin with outreach well before college. "Start earlier in lower grades," says Dr. Donald Maier, dean of the School of Maritime Transportation, Logistics & Management at the California State University Maritime Academy. "Junior high and high school teachers emphasize careers in medicine, law, public service, yet how often do they speak about careers in logistics or supply chain? The industry needs to find ways to make supply chain logistics sexy."
Maier says that the industry's strongest selling point is that every company has a need for well-qualified, well-educated individuals to understand and implement logistics plans.
"Essentially, it's about high placement rates and job security," he says.
Other institutions are leveraging the growing emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula that has been driving student interest in other fields, to generate interest in logistics.
"At the University of Memphis, we have developed an engineering apprenticeship program that includes a new course, Transformative Technologies in Engineering, and related work-based learning experiences," says Stephanie S. Ivey, associate dean for research at the Herff College of Engineering.
"[Drayage and trucking provider] IMC Companies is one of our core partners in this work. They are heavily invested in the program – from partnering with us from the outset to envision what this experience could be, to providing industry tours and guest speakers, to pairing our students in apprenticeship positions with IMC leaders who serve as mentors. We have had multiple engineering apprentices with IMC since the program started in Spring 2021, and they have all raved about their experiences. It opened the students' eyes to the possibilities available to them through an intermodal career."
Others agree that logistics education must change with the industry.
"The jobs of tomorrow are increasingly in advanced technology, optimization, coding and other non-traditional elements that make up the thrust of change in the logistics industry," says David W. Fisher, executive director of the Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. "What we can do to attract future leaders into advancing their knowledge is to build awareness that the jobs themselves are changing. At The TSC Institute, we teach technology trends in the 21st century and focus heavily on the overall architecture of the global logistics ecosphere."
At the same time, Fisher and others insist that advanced concepts build on a thorough understanding of fundamentals, particularly where intermodal is concerned.
"The best intermodal practitioners are those that have consciousness of the entirety of the logistics platform and the co-dependent nature of how our global supply chain works," he says. "Those that advance see our global supply chain as the highly matrixed stack of systems that make up the whole global supply chain."
At best, "[intermodal] is a section or two in a single chapter on transportation in the logistics textbook," says Kent N. Gourdin, director of the Global Logistics and Transportation Program at the College of Charleston. "Generally speaking, logistics education has been sacrificed on the altar of supply chain management. I believe a basic logistics class should be required in every undergraduate business curriculum. I think of a supply chain as logistics on steroids; if you don't understand the latter, how can you possibly manage the former?"
Richard D. Stewart, director of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, says that the teaching of logistics is disproportionate to its place in supply chain management.
"Domestic and global transportation are one of the largest spends in supply chains and one of the most critical," says Stewart, who spent decades working in transportation. "Too frequently far more time will be spent teaching inventory or purchasing management than transportation. It is a difficult field to teach without experience and engagement with industry in a rapidly changing field."
Furthermore, Stewart says educators must go beyond reading lists and lectures, to get to the heart of what the business is about.
"If we are to retain graduates in the industry we must be honest with them about the field they are entering. Logistics is a 24-7 industry and managers will, hopefully infrequently, get the 4 a.m. call that goes: 'We have a problem.' Students need to know this fact early on and be proud that they are learning how to lead teams to address problems."
"We do ourselves a disservice if we offer too narrow a definition of transportation and logistics," says Dr. Thomas O'Brien, executive director of the Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University, Long Beach. "There are a lot of people who never touch cargo who are vital to the flow of goods, and the flow of commerce, in general."
In California, a nexus of so much global trade and local industry change, educators must give students the tools they require to be effective industry leaders.
"It's about making an analysis of where the sector is heading," says O'Brien. "If it's the greening of logistics, for example, then it's how to integrate freight systems with energy systems. Or classes in cyber security, or resource management, or how to better use messaging and communications tools. That will make us more effective as educators."
O'Brien and his faculty talk frequently with employers, and they want job candidates with company-specific skills who connect with the corporate culture. "But if [students] know Excel and similar tools, they are going to be more useful on the job, especially for operations analysis. Abstract thinking and job skills knowledge are what we hear employers are wanting."