Empty supermarket shelves are a new experience for U.S. consumers, creating a sense of food scarcity that many of us haven’t experienced before. As we navigate our own need for essential goods during the COVID-19 crisis, we are all learning much more about the critical nature of the supply chain and the jobs that make all of this work.
Manufacturing supply chain teams manage layers of data, communication, and inventory to convert raw materials to finished goods, and to deliver products to their customers. Although many of these processes are facilitated by software programs, people have to be involved to make assumptions and reflect on the overall impact on labor, storage space, production, and shipping capacity, as well as purchasing.
Why Supply Chain Management Careers Are More Important Now Than Ever
Demand planners are responsible for determining baseline sales estimates and adjusting for promotional plans, as well as considering modifications in buying behavior, as we have seen with the COVID crisis. Given the shut down in restaurants, there has been a significant shift from food service sales over to retail sales as more consumers eat at home, requiring adjustments and monitoring of forecasts.
The bump in consumer demand also drastically reduced inventory that was held throughout the supply chain. When demand unexpectedly spiked, the weeks’ worth of on-hand inventory fell to crisis levels – leading to many products being indefinitely out of stock. The ramp up in demand required master schedulers to increase production runs, and purchasing managers to accelerate shipments of raw materials and packaging. These teams are reliant on strong relationships and creative thinking to modify orders and accelerate shipments. Production planning and scheduling need to flex, and labor needs to be ramped up to ensure the increased production time can be achieved.
Dispatch and logistics face significant pressure to manage outbound customer pick ups and shipments, as well as inbound supply deliveries. They balance increased traffic and volume to ensure that all orders are received, and trucks are prioritized for key products and orders.
Retail replenishment managers play a very important role in the supply chain as well, working closely with suppliers to deliver fresh food to consumers at the lowest costs. This strategy requires them to keep unallocated inventory to a minimum level. Inventory managers often manage less than a week of product on the store shelves, and there is very little backup in the store’s warehouse. They will rely on regular deliveries from their regional distribution centers, which are also holding less than a week of inventory on hand. The goal is to have deliveries from the supplier in transit to replenish the sold product, which will ensure freshness and reduce the cost of holding the product.
Replenishment computer systems are reliant on the supplier being able to fill orders on time and in full. The computer systems that generate these orders are sophisticated – but the systems need employees that can react to shifts and make decisions to accommodate the changes.
This is a simplified overview of the key supply chain roles and the interrelated nature of these functional tasks. The system is in a rapid state of change, reimagining how products can be purchased and delivered. These changes require new ways of thinking and working – and creative minds to help move us forward. It certainly is an exciting time to be exploring jobs in the supply chain field (or a degree with a supply chain management focus)! While the current uncertainty of the job market does mean that employers are holding off on hiring, we can anticipate that supply chain management jobs will be plentiful when the economy stabilizes and employers begin returning to more normal operations, as the importance of these roles has become increasingly clear.