The Supply Chain of Supply Chain Talent is Not Only Broken … It’s Running On Empty!

A recent article in Forbes noted that The Supply Chain of Supply Chain Talent Is Broken, which it is, and has been for well over a decade. The problems started back with the global first world truck driver shortages back in the early 2000s, but the real problems were much deeper and hidden from view due to the fact supply chains were otherwise running smoothly and no one was looking behind the curtain or shining a light into the dark recesses of the supply chain.

Why? Because of the rampant digitization of procurement, logistics, and supply chain over the past twenty years, a time when globalization reached its peak, conflict was at a minimum, inflation was in the rear-view mirror, and natural disasters were still manageable, supply chains just worked. Predictable processes, routes, costs, and flows allowed simple systems to manage the supply chains almost automatically. Supply Chains didn’t need traditional supply chain talent to run; they needed buyers, logistics managers, inventory operations, and compliance personnel who could use systems — IT geeks ruled the day!

At the same time, seasoned supply chain professionals — negotiators, logistics professionals, and inventory/warehouse managers — were retiring in droves, and no one was replacing them. More importantly, no one was replacing them because there was no perceived need. These were the individuals who where doing supply chains in the 80s and 90s, before modern systems managed everything, when there were still lots of regulations to deal with (as the EU was still forming), when you didn’t always have container ships available (or easy container transportation to all locales), and when you would have to know, by rote, who to call when a truck wasn’t at the factory or the dock for a pick-up. When you had to do everything by phone and fax, because email was a luxury; when you had to deal with dozens of import/export regulations (and know how to create the reports by hand), and how to manage logistics scheduling on paper, especially when availability of certain carriers or personnel would change by the day. When you had to truly know how supply chain operations worked end to end, and not just push buttons on a virtual screen.

But then they retired, and no one replaced them. Even worse, no one was recruited to replace them. The organizations saw no need, since the systems did everything, the EU and harmonized regulations across regions made trade easy, and the big global carriers managed logistics for them. As long as they had negotiators, system operators, outsourced carriers, and outsourced consultants to do the rest, who cared? They certainly didn’t.

Furthermore, because there was no need in the organizations, people who studied Operations Research and might have went into Supply Chain went elsewhere, and as demand shallowed, so did students, but more importantly, so did apprenticeships. Now, with disruptions on the rise, globalization retreating, inflation resurging, supply chains breaking due to slowdowns, (port) shutdowns, and double canal slowdowns/closures (Panama and Suez), and current systems not designed for the world today, there’s no one who can handle the current situation. And that’s why supply chains are broken, talent chains are broken, and most importantly, why they are empty.

All of this happened behind the scenes because no one was watching, no one was thinking about the future, and no one was doing a risk assessment or managing the risks that were destined to come. All despite the fact that natural disasters were on the rise, political tension was on the rise, and we were being warned that a pandemic was the top global risk for over a decade.

Now we are at a point where software alone won’t fix this, consultancies who don’t have talent either (despite telling you to go to China for two decades) won’t fix this, and hope won’t fix this. The only thing that will fix this is the re-introduction of supply chain apprenticeship programs, as noted by the Forbes article, along with the return of retirees with actual knowledge to mentor the new recruits, which is missed by the article. Most organizations, or consultancies, these days barely have enough talent to manage their own operations yet alone train a batch of new recruits on the side, especially if they didn’t live through the rise in global trade in the 80s and 90s. The retirees did, and they have the knowledge the consultancies, and modern systems, don’t. Along with new recruits, it is their (temporary) return that is needed to fix the supply chains.