What Skills Do I Need to Thrive in a Changing Supply Chain Profession?

Supply chain practitioners are today dealing with a reality of tariffs, continuity disruption, volatility in pricing, and a shifting global supply base. People currently working in the function are being tested like never before by a tsunami of factors coupled with inflationary pressure.

The good news is that there are plenty of smart young practitioners emerging in the field.

Our Managing Partner, Naseem Malik, joined Cathy Fisher, Jan Griffiths, and Terri Onica, the hosts of Auto Supply Chain Prophets Podcast, to chat about the key skills early-career professionals can consider focusing on as they enter this challenging new world of supply management.

The number-one skill for emerging supply chain leaders

Nothing beats volatility like agility. Clients want to find talent with across-the-board understanding and the ability to pivot on very short notice. This requires a shift away from narrow or specific skillsets (which leave you nowhere to turn), to a broader, end-to-end understanding of the entire picture from supply planning to the distribution side. 

Companies are slowly realising that it is better to hire for the future. They know there’s a lot more value in hiring somebody with the potential to be highly agile than in finding a person with a very specific skillset to meet a present need. David Epstein’s book on this topic (Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World) discovered that:

… in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. They are also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see … Spreading your knowledge across multiple domains is the key to success rather than deepening knowledge in a single area.”

If you’re a bright young practitioner considering possible career paths, the key thing to understand is that those professionals who can wear several hats have more of a leg-up. If you started solely in procurement or sourcing, you may be able to pick up some commodities or move into the direct or indirect side, which is great. But if you want to round that out, take a step back and understand the broader supply chain. A skillset that straddles supply planning, demand planning, the materials side, or even logistics and transportation will open the door to vastly more opportunities down the road.

We need to remember why this function is special and why young people gravitate towards it. Supply chain touches so many different parts of a company; almost more than any other function out there. You’ll be working with finance, engineering, operations, marketing, HR, and more. No wonder we’re seeing increasing numbers of supply chain executives going on to become COOs or even CEOs, or being tapped to be board members because their broad experience is so valued.

Don’t slip off the AI curve

Today’s supply chain professionals have so many tools that earlier generations have never seen. Not being able to learn about and leverage these to set yourself apart is a mistake. AI is the most pressing example: it will inevitably replace people who don’t use it, but won’t replace people who know how to use it to get ahead. If you’re wondering where to start, consider learning the basics of prompt engineering to enhance your employability.

The technology challenge in automotive

This was an automotive podcast, so let’s finish with a story Naseem heard in a podcast featuring Jim Farley, CEO of Ford.

Farley admitted that the automotive industry has “lost the tech battle with Tesla”, and estimated that Musk’s company is about 20 years ahead. Why? Because every module that goes into a car now has a tech component and its own subset of tech suppliers. One module might rely on Panasonic, another Verizon, and so on. Yet older supply chain professionals in automotive are used to dealing with steel, tyre, and engine component suppliers.     

Tesla is miles ahead of everybody because that have all that software and engineering expertise in-house, while the likes of Ford have to go and negotiate with several different tech suppliers and – crucially – are now competing with every other industry that needs rare earths, microchips and other high-demand components.

To build a competitive car and stay on the cutting edge, supply chain professionals in this industry have to understand the technology and know how to speak the language of tech suppliers when negotiating. That’s their lifeblood moving forward.