At USF, building a career supply chain

When the University of South Florida decided to start a supply chain management program, it built it hand-in-hand with industry.

Port Tampa Bay is the largest seaport in Florida, the so-called gateway to Latin America. Ships move 34 million tons of cargo a year in and out of the port—oceans of petroleum and liquid sulfur and enough dry goods containers to hold something like 835 million pairs of shoes. Rail lines radiate out from the bay, and the I-4 corridor running from Tampa to Orlando now rivals Atlanta for the largest concentration of distribution centers in the Southeast.

The supply chain business is booming here—and short staffed.

That was the case even back in 2016, when a group of academics and local business leaders sat down on the campus of the University of South Florida to talk about what to do. Together, over the coming months, they hashed out a plan for taking the university’s fledgling minor in supply chain management and growing it into standalone bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

They sold the idea to university leadership and then the legislature, and the bachelor’s launched in fall of 2020. A three-plus year process is pretty typical for public higher education and even with an intervening pandemic, isn’t exactly moving at the speed of business. What sets the USF program apart, though, is the level of collaboration between the business dean, faculty, and local employers to ensure it was industry-ready at launch and continues to evolve with the times.

Sometimes you look at a curriculum, says Robert Hooker, and you wonder: “Were you all as a bunch of academics making this stuff up in a vacuum?”

The big idea: Hooker, an associate professor who helped design the supply chain program, and his colleagues didn’t want that, and neither did USF’s leadership. That sentiment is part of a broader shift in higher education to focus more on employer demand in developing new programs. Nine in 10 colleges in a recent survey out of the Education & Employment Research Center at Rutgers University said they now use labor market data in some way when designing programs, though far fewer truly co-design programs with industry.

There’s also a growing recognition that students in majors both old and new benefit from having work-based experiences—projects, internships, co-ops, and the like—built into their curriculum.

The supply chain management program at USF is an example of what it looks like when you package all that together: designing a program alongside industry, embedding work experience, and creating a continuous feedback loop around graduates’ skills and the evolving needs of employers. It may be most natural to have that full package in a major that’s clearly career-oriented, but USF’s provost Prasant Mohapatra says that at least aspects of that work can happen in a lot of fields.

“We have examples across disciplines like chemistry, history, social work, education, engineering and business,” he says.

A view of downtown Tampa from Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. (Photo by Chalo Garcia via Unsplash)

If you build it…

Even if you build a program hand-in-hand with industry, don’t expect employers to come on their own. You’re going to have to get the word out to businesses large and small, Hooker says.

Take the experience of OneRail. The Orlando-based start-up is a fan of the USF supply chain program. Its CEO sponsored and headlined the program’s annual industry summit this May, and a USF student interned there this summer. 

“They’re one of the few schools that really focuses in on the technical aspect of the supply chain,” says David Fake, director of people operations at the company.

But OneRail had never heard of the program until Elaine Singleton, co-director of USF’s Monica Wooden Center for Supply Chain Management & Sustainability, came calling. With about 140 employees, the company is mid-sized but growing fast—the kind of place that has urgent hiring needs, but none of the recruiting resources of a Fortune 500.

“She saw we were doing a lot of recruiting and reached out,” Fake says. “I’ve been really impressed with how granularly they get involved with students there. I wish I’d had that kind of advisor when I was in school.”

Student Bernice Jean leads a presentation as part of a supply chain management course. (Courtesy of USF)

Career connections as selling point

That high-touch approach was a big selling point for Mitchell Tosi. He started as an accounting major at USF, and then coming into his junior year he heard about the supply chain management program. The pandemic had already given him a consumer’s view of the field’s importance, and the opportunity to use his financial evaluation and negotiation skills in a growing—and rapidly evolving—career appealed to him.

“I was immediately fascinated by the subject,” he says. 

The small class sizes in USF’s program and the focus on real-world experience sealed the deal. By the time he graduated in December 2022, Tosi already had three full-time job offers in his specific area of interest—and ultimately took one doing procurement for the R&D division at Johnson & Johnson in Tampa, where he’d previously interned.

Hearing Tosi talk, he’s clearly a high achiever, and he was president of the supply chain management club in his senior year. But even so, he’s not an outlier. The program has about 200 students and thus far has a 100% placement rate, with an average starting salary between $65K-$75K.

That’s certainly due in part to the selectivity—students typically need a B average to enter the major—but Hooker emphasizes that it’s also by design. Students are expected to have had several deep working and learning experiences with employers before they graduate. Most have had two to three internships, or a lengthy co-op. By contrast, fewer than half of students at four-year institutions nationally have had an internship by their senior year.

Tosi landed a procurement internship at Johnson & Johnson in his first semester in the major. He was taking a course on sourcing at the same time, and the two experiences complemented and reinforced each other.

“It was wonderful going back and forth between the two,” he says. “I would take something I was learning in class and take it to my internship and vice versa. That was a neat opportunity to have those two happen at the same time.”

Designing for outcomes

Program faculty and staff actively recruit employers, and the curriculum is designed around these work-based experiences. Tosi’s 10-day study abroad in France, for example, was a capstone project built around the port in Normandy. 

And, Hooker says, the major doesn’t just cream students who naturally have the time and resources to do those kinds of things. About 30% of the university’s undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants for low-income students, and many are balancing their studies with work to pay the bills. Students in the supply chain management program are no exception, Hooker says. 

  • So the program requires employers participating in its internship program to pay, with students earning an average of about $18 an hour. 

“We have students that are working full time,” he says. “We need them to make that transition from whatever they’re currently doing—for many of them that’s working at restaurants—to working their career job.”

That wouldn’t be possible, Hooker says, if it weren’t built in from the get-go.

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