By RYAN ROTHMAN
University of Nebraska System
KEARNEY – Over the last few years, two words have become a frequent subject of conversation around the world: supply chain. From empty shelves at the store to delayed deliveries and manufacturing slowdowns, supply chain has been front of mind for many Nebraskans, both at work and at home.
Take the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic: A panic in buying behavior by consumers led to a shortage of inventory in the supply chain with goods like cleaning products, PPE and toilet paper. Most companies had practiced just-in-time inventory management, meaning they had just enough to fill normal orders, but not enough for major changes in buying behavior. As local inventory dwindled, even more goods needed to be shipped in from overseas, causing another issue in the supply chain.
As businesses face similarly complex supply chain problems today, they also face a need for employees to help them find cost-effective solutions. The University of Nebraska at Kearney is leading the charge to meet that need. UNK’s supply chain management (SCM) degree program prepares students to be involved in all stages of the supply chain, getting the right product and quantity to the right consumer at the right time.
Associate professor Greg Benson has led the program for the last nine years. A 30-year industry veteran, he worked for several national and Nebraska-based companies before joining the College of Business and Technology at UNK. His experiences have shaped his view on the importance of effective SCM, not just from the consumer perspective, but from a business perspective.
“Every company has a supply chain opportunity,” Benson said. “From the very smallest company to the largest corporations, they all have someone who buys products, manages inventory, schedules resources, transports goods and manages customer service.”
UNK’s program trains students for careers like the ones Benson mentions – in planning, forecasting, purchasing, transportation, storage, distribution, sales and customer service.
Learning by Doing
In Benson’s professional past, many of the graduates he interviewed for entry-level positions had gained knowledge in the classroom, but didn’t possess much, if any, real-world experience. Now, as a professor, he’s focused on making sure students enter the workforce with both.
“I believe it’s important for us to help students learn textbook knowledge, which is traditional to the classroom, but also prepare them for life after college with real experience,” Benson said.
Field trips, case studies and required internships are critical components of the student experience. And all students enrolled in the SCM program have access to the same opportunities.
When Benson became the program’s coordinator, one of the first activities he initiated was scheduling a bus field trip each semester to visit companies across Nebraska who are involved in SCM. Each trip typically includes visits at three companies – a manufacturer, a distributor and a transportation company. These trips have taken students across the state, from Kearney to Omaha and Norfolk to North Platte, at no cost to the students. A student enrolled in the program as a freshman can take up to eight trips by the time they graduate.
The program also provides students with the opportunity to participate in an annual case study competition judged by representatives from Nebraska companies. Students work in teams of four to develop a solution for an SCM-related case. The cases are written by Benson based on his past experiences or are from an actual case situation provided by a company. Students not only receive valuable feedback on their work from industry professionals, they also gain exposure to work on real-world problems they wouldn’t gain in the classroom.
Benson believes the most impactful experience students gain during their time in the program is a required internship. They can apply many of the things they’ve learned in the classroom to real projects for real companies. And the effectiveness of UNK’s internship program has been noticed by employers across Nebraska.
“UNK’s internship program is phenomenal,” said Chad Henning, president of Kearney-based Cash-Wa Distributing. “It’s helping youth build a good, solid foundation. If you want to build a house, the more solid foundation you have, the more stories you can add.”
Success Through Partnerships
It wouldn’t be possible for the SCM program to provide these experiential learning opportunities without the support of the business community. Gaining support and building partnerships is part of Benson’s job as the program coordinator.
During the past seven years, Benson has traveled across Nebraska to meet with 30-40 companies each summer to introduce them to the SCM program at UNK. To date, Benson has established valuable relationships with over 200 companies. His focus has been – and continues to be – on connecting students with companies that have SCM-related job opportunities within a 150-mile radius of UNK.
Companies that choose to partner with the program gain access to opportunities that support both business success and student success. The bus tours give companies a chance to interact with students on location before they apply for internships or full-time positions. On campus, employers are regularly invited to present to students in SCM classes and participate in career fairs specific to the SCM program.
The program’s industry-specific, day-long career fairs offer robust, relationship-focused experiences. After handing out resumes and making introductions during the morning session, students schedule interviews with participating companies that take place the same afternoon. Following the event, students and company representatives gather at an evening social, which allows conversations to continue in a more casual setting.
Jared Buller, a graduate of the program who is currently working as a sourcing specialist for Kearney-based Parker Hannifin, believes these experiences were critical in preparing him for his career after college.
“When I think back on the best parts of the program, the bus trip and individualized supply chain career fair were the top two,” Buller said. “Connecting students directly with companies helps them better understand what they would be doing in the field, instead of just reading a textbook and going through theoretical examples.”
Benson also works to maintain connections with partner companies in communities beyond Kearney, including Grand Island, Fremont, Norfolk, Lincoln and Omaha. When he visited Kawasaki in Lincoln five years ago, they expressed interest in giving students from Kearney an opportunity to continue working after their summer internships ended. Based on this, a new Supply Chain Center at UNK was established. Located near Benson’s office in UNK’s West Center building, the Supply Chain Center provides workstations and equipment for students to participate in virtual internships all year long.
Many of the SCM program’s experiential learning opportunities are made possible through financial support from companies participating in the Champions of Supply Chain Excellence program. Participating companies and organizations make a yearly donation of $4,000, of which 50% is set aside for scholarships and 50% is used for field trips and other experiential activities.
Cash-Wa is one of many companies involved in the Champions of Supply Chain Excellence program. Henning sees significant value in their partnership with UNK.
“Greg has done a great job of talking with companies like ours about being actively involved in the program as guest speakers, organizing tours, participating in career fairs and attending social events. It’s beneficial for the students and for our company, as well,” he said.
“We try and do as much as possible with the supply chain program – a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Meeting Nebraska’s Needs
Benson noted the goal for the SCM program is simple: Help companies within a 150-mile radius of Kearney find the talent they need to be successful. And the goal is being met, year after year.
UNK’s program has had 140 graduates to date – and 85% of those graduates have stayed and worked for Nebraska employers. And since its inception 11 years ago, the program has experienced a 100% student placement rate in SCM-related positions, with many students having multiple job offers before graduation day.
“The biggest problem our students have is trying to pick which of the opportunities fits them the best,” Benson said.
“We’ve been able to place a lot of students at companies, they contribute, and then those companies keep coming back to us. If they feel like they are getting value and finding success with students, they come back to recruit more students.”
A pipeline of highly trained supply chain management professionals is extremely beneficial for any company. Students who graduate from UNK’s SCM program enter the workforce with a solid foundational understanding, a shorter learning curve and a drive to bring out-of-the-box thinking into their new organization.
“It’s great for the university, Kearney and the entire business community,” Henning said. “They’re helping students get ready for their careers while helping create a pool of talent that we might not otherwise have available to us. It’s truly beneficial for all.”
As Buller looks back to his education and toward the future of his career, he believes there’s plenty of room to grow:
“The opportunities are endless.”