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“Most people don’t even know about supply chains,” says Kevin Maynard, executive director at the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (CSCSC). He explains how many students pursuing a professional education often overlook this global field, which has seen serious growth in the past decade. “Little Johnny or Sally don’t often go home and say to mom and dad, ‘I want to be a strategic sourcing analyst.’”

Nevertheless, this is practically what our economy functions on, an intricately coordinated network of supply chains that see a product from its fundamental components to the television set in your living room. Essentially, a supply chain is a series of companies or departments involved in a) the supply of materials, b) the manufacturing of said materials, and c) the networked distribution of the finished products to retailers and to the final customer.

Your typical supply chain can be broken down into three basic categories: operational, managerial, and tactical. Each of these occupations can be geared towards a variety of areas within the industry, from operating a forklift, to data analysis, to the purchasing or procurement of things we use in everyday life.

The industry has seen an increase in its labour forces over the last decade. In 2001 the number of supply chain workers was 629,108, according to the CSCSC. That figure has steadily risen an average 2.1 percent annually to 744,762 workers by 2009, not including truck drivers. Within that time, 14,500 new jobs were added each year to the sector. Ontario has the highest number of workers, with over 150,432 supply chain employees in Toronto alone. Maynard attributes this growth to a demand for better business efficiency. “Supply chains help organizations become more efficient in their operations and inventory control,” he explains. “Organizations are looking for better sources of component parts, finished goods, and better markets to sell their own goods. People have to look beyond borders and ship goods and services beyond Canada, and that’s required more people and a greater level of skill sets.”

One of the biggest challenges this industry is facing is trying to create awareness of the many spheres and opportunities that supply chains encompass. “Supply chain careers go across all industries,” says Maynard. He elaborates by pointing out that the field’s growth isn’t tied to any specific industry. In fact, if you did strategic sourcing for an auto manufacturer, you can apply those same skills at a pharmaceutical company.

Dr. Satyaveer Chauhan is an assistant professor in operational management at the John Molson School of Business. He notes that the skills a student might study in supply chain management are interdisciplinary and can be applied in different fields. “Most of the students who major in supply chain management may take information management or accounting as a minor,” he says. “It all depends on the student’s interest and where they want to go.” So even if someone in the supply chain field feels for a change of pace, they can always take their transferable skills and pursue a different career path.

One of these paths includes the purchasing and procurement sector. “Procurement is an area of interest to be explored because it’s sort of a ‘back of the house’ type of function,” says Cheryl Paradowski, president and CEO at the Purchasing Management Association of Canada (PMAC). Paradowski notes that one of the PMAC’s members is responsible for purchasing all the ingredients for chocolate bars, while another’s responsible for sourcing all the parts for roller coasters and amusement park supplies.

Various colleges and institutes offer programs that give students the necessary skills that could greatly serve the industry. The folks at the CSCSC have put together a nifty database of schools that provide such programs. Most of them offer certificates while others have degree and Master’s programs. Some provide co-op placements as well. Specific institutions include Montreal’s Concordia University, which offers an MBA in Specialization in Supply Chain Management, while McGill University and George Brown College both offer specialized certificates.

Generally, degrees in business, commerce, or management are what this field’s employers are looking for. However, an integral focus of supply chain management is on the amount of information produced from integrated technology. Although general IT and interpersonal skills are an asset, there’s a particularly strong demand for people with analytical, forecasting, and quantitative skills, and both Maynard and Dr. Chauhan agree that business and supply chain programs must prepare their students with these traits. Although a continual growth in the industry is likely, a vacancy rate of over 80,000 workers per year is expected due to retirement and turnover; so there’s definitely room for new hires.

As of 2010, those entering the field under 25 could expect to earn on average $53,800 a year. Annual wages averaged out to $67,800 for those in the operational sector, $92,600 for managers, and $164,600 for executives. This year, a pay hike of around four percent could be expected. Besides other benefits, those who enjoy globetrotting could have the opportunity for extensive traveling, especially senior buyers who might do a lot of procurement in South East Asia and China.

If you pursue a career in supply chain and logistics, you’ll find a variety of opportunities set out before you, and who knows, perhaps one day little Johnny would understand the importance of a strategic sourcing analyst after all.