Training The Supply Chain
It’s a behind-the-scenes industry few people think of as they go about their daily lives, yet when the COVID-19 crisis struck, it became clear that logistics is crucial to society’s functioning.
In South Africa, with its thousands of kilometres of road and rail and 2 800km of coastline, it’s not surprising that the country’s freight and logistics industry is one of the biggest contributors to GDP – an estimated 11.8 per cent, according to the World Bank.
Yet, in January this year, demand for warehousing and logistics experts far outstretched supply, putting these professionals among the top 10 most sought-after in the country, according to an index by job portal Career Junction.
Does this mean local education in the sector is not up to scratch?
Theory and practice
South Africa’s degrees are about as well respected as those of any other college in the rest of the world, says Andrew dos Santos, director of the Centre for Logistics Excellence. “However, our degrees should become more practical and less theoretical,” he adds. “There are two skills that are fundamental to the new normal in the sector, as in many others: critical thinking and lifelong learning. The reality is that one cannot study a single degree and stop there. Our institutions need to teach students how to find and consume different sources of information, and constantly apply that new information over the course of their careers.”
Richard dos Santos, a director at the South African Production and Inventory Control Society (SAPICS), the professional body for supply chain management, agrees. “Supply chain management requires that students are equipped with problem-solving concepts in logistics such as rate of exchange.”
This creates knock-on challenges in the industry, he adds, because intensive on-the-job training, along with the time and resources needed for that, is a necessity and that cuts into the bottom line.
The global stage
Liezl Smith, owner of supply chain improvement consultants Business 6, and former president of SAPICS, is also concerned that standards seem to be dropping at certain local universities. “Lecturers need to keep up to date with fast-moving supply-chain developments and this is not always the case,” says Smith. “I believe most universities are as much as 10 or more years behind current trends. Innovative concepts are not taught, and are only introduced when there is sufficient research and pressure on faculty to do so.”
Yet, a degree from an established university still carries the most weight and will likely ensure a better starting salary. After that, experience and practical knowledge are key. “In logistics, hard work does eventually level the playing field,” adds Smith.
Most multinational organisations require at least entry-level qualifications for placement and promotion, agrees Richard dos Santos. “But today, these firms will seek a combination of theoretical knowledge, such as a bachelor’s degree and practical training, for example a vocational certificate. This is where professional bodies such as SAPICS play a critical role in equipping students for the global stage.”
Many prominent global organisations, however, have already publicly stated that they no longer hire based on qualifications or even have a qualification as prerequisite, he adds. “These organisations are the trendsetters for a frontier of recruitment that places emphasis on experience over qualification. I don’t think we will see the traditional approach [of a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge] disappear within the supply-chain profession, but this trend has certainly given many educational institutions pause for concern to ensure that new teaching models are developed.”
Newer teaching models also need to incorporate fast-changing technology in the field but, for the moment, this creates a conundrum, says Andrew dos Santos. “The problem with 4IR technologies is that, from an industry point of view, many organisations are still flirting with the idea of implementing these technologies and so the final outcome is still very much in flux,” he explains. “For an educational institution to invest in producing this type of content without knowing what is practical can be a difficult balance. But I truly believe that it is imperative that we bring this type of education into the continent and country, and some of our institutions are indeed tackling it head-on.”
Dr Dennis Laxton, a lecturer in logistics and supply-chain management at Wits Plus (the university’s centre for part-time study), says the Fourth Industrial Revolution will drastically change what needs to be taught in the field to stay relevant. “Many authors argue that significant changes will be seen in, but not limited to, areas like equipment and robotics, smart packaging, big data and cloud computing, customisation and e-commerce,” says Laxton.
Future courses, he adds, will need to focus on teaching students not only this theoretical knowledge, but also real-world applications to ensure that graduates enter the industry knowing how to apply these skills practically. But if there’s one thing the industry is good at, it’s taking disruption, whether 4IR or COVID-19, in its stride, says Richard dos Santos. “As an industry, the response to the supply-chain disruption during the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the exemplary work that supply-chain professionals are doing daily,” he says. “Despite the strain, most supply-chain systems have not buckled.”