How to Launch a Successful Career in Supply Chain Management

A supply chain is essentially all of the steps involved in getting products and goods from the plant where they’re manufactured to the stores where customers buy them. One of the many lessons learned from the pandemic was just how detrimental it can be when the supply chain is broken. Organizations across industries are still dealing with the consequences of those issues, whether that means making their products using different materials or experimenting with new distribution methods.

Given this recent experience, it’s no surprise that supply chain management is a fast-growing field. Projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predict the logistics sector will grow at a rate of 28% through 2031, far faster growth than the overall job market. Already the U.S. supply chain employs some 44 million people, accounting for 37% of all jobs, opening up ample opportunities for supply chain professionals to advance their career. If you’re a student, recent graduate, or career-switcher thinking about a supply chain role, this article will answer the most common questions about the industry so you can decide if it’s the right career path for you.

What is supply chain management?

In short, it’s coordinating the entire lifecycle of physical goods, from the supplier of the raw materials used to make it to the manufacturers who produce it, the warehouse that stores it, the distributor who transports it, and finally the retailer who sells it. These services are necessary in a number of fields. Basically, if a business handles physical items in any way, it’s part of some supply chain.

The main difference between different roles within supply chain management is their scope. Some focus on one specific supply chain processes, such as purchasing or shipping, while others coordinate the entire end-to-end process within a company or department. In general, the higher a role is in the hierarchy, the broader their scope of oversight will be.

The steps of a supply chain

Obviously, this depends somewhat on the specific type of product and who the end consumer is, but on a big picture level there are some shared steps. It starts with sourcing raw materials, which are then manufactured or refined into parts and components. These parts are assembled into finished products ready to transport to retailers and, finally, be sold to end consumers. Parts or products that are in between these steps are stored in facilities like warehouses until they’re ready to be moved along in the process.

Types of companies that employ supply chain managers

Supply chain managers work for companies that fall into all of the above steps. This is one reason there’s so much variety in this field. Even with two jobs that have a similar title, the responsibilities and necessary skills will often differ depending on where in the supply chain the company is positioned.

Managers in businesses that source raw materials or make basic parts and components will be most focused on “upstream” processes. These are the things involved in production, like sourcing and purchasing supplies and the factories that turn them into salable goods.

Conversely, those working in retail, distribution warehouses, and other companies toward the end of a product’s supply chain will be mostly concerned with “upstream” processes that move a product forward along the supply chain, such as distribution, sales, and inventory storage and management. Of course, many businesses have a supply chain running in both directions, from their suppliers in and then out to their end customers, and managing that supply chain becomes more complex as a result.

Types of jobs in supply chain management

Just about every industry has some kind of logistics needs, and supply chains are crucial for all of those to succeed. That means there’s a wide variety of roles and job titles in this field, each with its own typical responsibilities and required skills. Here are a few of the common supply chain jobs at the management level.

Operations manager

Average salary: $98,000 per year
Typical education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration or a related field

Operations managers coordinate every step of business operations for an organization. This includes acquiring materials and overseeing the development and manufacturing of products, all the way through to pricing and distribution. A similar job title is production manager, which typically has a comparable career path and duties, though with a tighter focus on the manufacturing and production processes.

The career path to becoming an operations manager usually starts with entry-level roles in production, administration, or data management. From there, most spend some time in lower leadership roles, like team supervisors and project or department managers, before advancing to oversee the entire operations. In addition to a degree, certificates like Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) or Certified Manager (CM) can help candidates to stand out for these positions.

Logistics manager

Average salary: $63,000 per year
Typical education: Bachelor’s degree in business, management, logistics, or a related field

Logistics managers take over where an operations manager’s role ends. They oversee the storage of inventory waiting to be shipped, forecasting the amount of product to produce, distribution of products, and customer service both before and after products are received. Often, they’ll spend much of their time collaborating with other departments, making interpersonal and communication skills crucial for success. They also need to be highly organized, analytical, and detail-oriented, with an effective vision for planning and distributing the things their company makes.

Since this is a role supervising people, most companies will look for candidates with some leadership experience, in addition to a degree and experience in logistics. Common entry-level roles that lead to logistics management include dispatcher, transportation specialist, logistics engineer, or logistics analyst.

Purchasing manager

Average salary: $127,000 per year
Typical education: Bachelor’s degree in business, accounting, management, or a related field

Purchasing managers oversee the procurement of supplies and materials for businesses, with the goal of getting the highest-quality items at the best possible value. This requires a breadth of expertise, including strong negotiation and sales skills as well as deep knowledge of the industry, its standards, and any legal concerns or regulations that apply to their product area. Purchasing managers also coordinate the activities of the broader purchasing team, meaning they need to have strong communication, organization, and interpersonal skills to succeed.

Typically, purchasing managers will start in an entry-level role that’s on the ground interacting with suppliers as a buyer or purchasing agent. Most employers will expect a minimum of five years’ experience in this type of role before they’ll consider them a viable management candidate.

Storage and distribution manager

Average salary: $81,000 per year
Typical education: Bachelor’s degree in business, management, or a related field

This role oversees the inventory management and warehousing aspects of a company’s production process. This includes transportation and delivery of items, either to wholesalers and other businesses or directly to the end consumer, depending on the nature of the business. While the functions and responsibilities of the role vary widely, it usually includes organization of inventory, oversight of its storage and distribution, and coordination of the warehouse team, including hiring and training new staff and enforcing safety standards and security regulations in place for the business.

Typically, these professionals will start in a supporting role on the inventory side of the supply chain, often in an entry-level warehouse role. This work requires a higher level of physical fitness than most supply chain jobs since it can mean loading and unloading trucks and spending a lot of time on your feet walking around the warehouse. It can also mean long hours, often outside the typical 9-5 schedule, to ensure products arrive at their destination when customers need them.

Steps to start a career as a supply chain manager

1. Get your education.

A Bachelor’s degree is a requirement for the majority of supply chain management positions. Many universities offer an undergraduate program in supply chain management as part of their business school. Degrees in business administration, operations, systems engineering, and similar areas can also prepare you well for this career path.

2. Gain hands-on experience in the industry.

There is an array of potential career paths and occupations in supply chain management, and working in the industry can help you solidify your career goals and decide which of these career opportunities is a good fit for your life, skills, and interests. Some schools have internships for students to get this real-world experience, but getting an entry-level role after graduation can serve the same purpose.

3. Dial in on a specialization with supply chain certification.

Particularly if you earned a more general business degree, enhancing your credentials with an industry certificate can help to show employers you’re committed to and knowledgeable about the industry. There are two main organizations that offer these certifications: the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM) and the International Society of Logistics (SOLE). Each organization offers a range of certification courses and programs for logisticians and other specific roles in the supply chain industry.

4. Strengthen your leadership and project management skills.

Industry expertise takes care of the “supply chain” part of these positions, but it’s just as important to be a skilled leader and project manager. You’ll learn some of these skills during your education, but most employers will want to see proof that you can put them to good use, too. Taking a mid-level supervisor or management role can help you to further develop these crucial skills so you’re ready for the people management challenges you’ll face in higher positions in the future.

Is supply chain management the best career for you?

As long as products are being made and people want to buy them, there will be a need for supply chain managers. This makes it a relatively recession-proof and stable career path. It’s also a field with a variety of career advancement options and a high salary potential once you gain experience. Since these roles are vital in a range of industries, education or experience in supply chain management gives workers a lot of flexibility when it comes to their industry, schedule, and workplace environment.

On the other hand, the fact that these positions are critical to a business’ operations can make them high-stress roles, particularly at the leadership level. It’s also a sector that relies heavily on collaboration, with few completely-independent roles and less likelihood of finding a remote job than in other fields. The work involved can often be physically demanding, as well, though less so as you advance into management roles.

The bottom line is that supply chain management is a dynamic and growing field, and while it’s not the best occupation for everyone, it can be a fulfilling and high-earning career for those who thrive in a fast-paced team environment.