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Why the Supply Chain Workforce of the Future Should Look Nothing like It Does Today

September 27, 2023
Keith Hartley

Diversity in global supply chains is a hot topic as it’s multi-dimensional: diversity of thought, diversity of gender, diversity of experiences, and so on. The word diversity evokes a strong emotional response for good reason.

As I look at the current makeup of the supply chain manager workforce, one theme emerges: a true lack of diversity. In the U.S., 75 percent of supply chain managers are men, and 65 percent of them are white with an average age is 46.5. Eighty percent of supply chain managers work in Fortune 500 companies in the manufacturing, technology, retail, and transportation industries. By these measures, the supply chain workforce is not diverse. Additionally, according to Statista, only 30 percent of supply chain companies expect widescale adoption of AI by 2025.

So, how can we build the supply chain workforce of the future with the skills needed to succeed in a world that will be very different than it is now?

We can start by figuring out how to attract and retain more women. The value of hiring diverse talent is clear. According to a Harvard Business Review study, companies with above-average diversity, measured by migration, industry, career path, gender, education, and age, averaged 19 percent higher innovation revenues and 9percent higher EBIT margins.

According to Korn Ferry research, diverse and inclusive organizations are 87 percent more likely to make better decisions and 75percent faster at bringing products to market. Their research shows female supply chain leaders in large supply chain organizations excel in leading with empathy, cooperation, and collaboration, which the sector can holistically benefit from. Companies that operate with a lack of diversity suffer from what I call the decision abyss. In other words, they need more diversity of thought, something that is often overshadowed by other measures of diversity.

I envision two possible scenarios for the future of the supply chain sector.

In a collapse scenario, the sector will continue as it has been, ignoring the benefits of hiring more women in managerial and leadership roles in the supply chain. Organizations without new perspectives will continue with the same ideas and tools and resist adopting new technologies over the next decade. Then, boom! Another supply chain shock disrupts global supply chains, and procurement organizations must scramble to manage uncertainty using desktop tools such as spreadsheets and email. Employees may retire or change careers rather than face the stress and uncertainty they faced during the COVID pandemic, leaving supply chains with a worker shortage and having to attract talent without an adequate budget. Finding the workforce they want will be almost impossible because many prospective employees want to work with organizations that embrace and practice diversity and technology. So, they try offering higher salaries. Still no takers. Customers look to their competitors as product delays harm their operations. The company’s bottom line suffers, and layoffs become inevitable. At best, it will be years before the company returns to growth.

However, a scenario of exponential growth is possible too. Supply chain organizations can embrace several huge opportunities at once by building a long-term vision. First, they will address the imbalance in the workforce by creating strategies for attracting and retaining diverse talent, especially women. Then, they can invest in AI-powered intelligence platforms to entice new talent and grow the careers of their current workforce. Next, they will create meaningful upskilling programs and reentry avenues for mid-career women and others so that everyone benefits from the new vision. When those concurrent and unprecedented supply chain shocks hit, supply chain teams can wield their expertise and AI tools to navigate confidently and make informed pivots before any disruption to customers or products occurs. Even better, because of this paradigm shift and investment, the organization’s procurement team now collaborates closely with other parts of the organization. As a result, it contributes directly to the top and bottom lines of the business, providing improved margins, spotting new business opportunities, and creating new value for customers.

Here’s how we can embrace the exponential growth scenario and welcome more women into the supply chain sector. 

Develop and Empower Women in the Supply Chain Sector

Sometimes, future leaders are selected because they look and think like the leaders selecting them. This is what social scientists call homophily or “love of the same.” As we see in the supply chain sector, with a large gender imbalance at the manager level, homophily will likely create “more of the same” leaders without intentional shifts from the default.

We can disrupt this pattern by challenging our leadership networks. Chances are good that the top25 people in our leadership circles look similar. Once we start seeking those who don’t look and think like us, we begin to understand and appreciate how much value these different voices bring. Seek diverse voices out, invite them in, and celebrate their work. Workforce diversity is personal for me. As the father of two daughters, I want to help shape a future where women’s ideas and talents will be sought and appreciated. Within my organization, I’m equally passionate about celebrating women’s leadership.

Recently, Kathy Makranyi, global head of marketing and VP for LevaData, was named as a recipient of the 2023 Women In Supply Chain Award by Food Logistics and Supply & Demand Chain Executive. This important award honors female supply chain leaders and executives whose accomplishments, mentorship, and examples set a foundation for women at all levels of a company’s supply chain network. The interesting shift in this year’s award is that more than 25 percent of the nominators were male. We need more men to acknowledge and celebrate women's professional accomplishments!

Getting More Women Back into Supply Chain Roles

One of the biggest challenges in conquering the gender gap lies with retaining mid-career women in supply chain roles. When women leave the workforce to have children, what can we do to help them reenter supply chain roles? Schedule flexibility, mentoring, and return-to-work programs that provide opportunities for sharpening skills or learning new technologies rank high among women returning to the workforce.

Think about it. The supply chain sector is struggling to attract the workers we need. Women comprise approximately fifty percent of the population yet hold only 41 percent of the supply chain workforce. Attracting and retaining more women in the supply chain workforce means organizations will create more diversity of thought, enjoy better collaboration, and improve financial metrics. To start, companies need to set goals for engaging mid-career women and supporting them in returning to their supply chain roles.

Be the Change

Leaders set the tone for the entire organization. If we truly want to embrace a more diverse workplace and enjoy the value it brings to our organizations and our customers, we must lead by example. I hope you can join me for my DPW keynote session with Dyson’s Chief Supply Chain Officer Michelle Shi-Verdaasdonk, where I will share news about our company’s commitment to future generations of women in the supply chain sector.

The supply chain workforce of the future will look nothing like it does today, which is a good thing. With a commitment to creating a diverse workforce and the foresight to embrace new technologies and ways of working, we will shape a new mindset. As part of that shift, we’ll welcome more women into the supply chain sector than ever before. Our organizations will be more flexible, collaborative, and empathic. We will provide more value to our organizations and customers. The shifts we make now will determine whether we can either enjoy exponential growth or endure structural collapse in the near future.

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