Where Can My Supply Chain Career Take Me?

Workers in a Food Distribution Warehouse
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The supply chain career path has evolved. A supply chain isn’t just purchasing, and if you’re working as a buyer, purchasing agent or purchasing manager, you'll have a unique view of your company’s or industry’s career opportunities. 

With supply chain’s critical role in today’s global business environment, the supply chain professional is no longer just the “purchasing guy” or "purchasing gal." 

Supply chain roles and responsibilities encompass a broad array of business functions. 

Business functions such as:

  • Demand Planning
  • Inventory Control
  • Customer Service/Fulfillment
  • Logistics
  • Freight
  • Warehousing
  • Production Planning
  • Purchasing
  • Sourcing
  • Supplier Management
  • Supplier Engineering

Getting Started

Fifteen years ago, the author, Gary Marion noticed that supply chain professionals typically fell into two categories:

  • Energetic Young Professionals
  • Lifelong Buyers, Planners, Freight Coordinators or Inventory Managers
According to Marion, "The energetic young professionals of 15 years ago were not trained in supply chain. They were typically men and women fresh out of college who wanted to get started in a company in any capacity so that they could springboard into marketing or other seemingly sexier departments."

Marion remembers that when he took over a supply chain leadership role at a company about 15 years ago, he was told on day one by his new boss (who was the Chief Financial Officer) that:

"If you surveyed the employees at the company and asked which was the last department that they would want to work in … most of them would say supply chain."

The lifelong buyers and the energetic young professionals just didn’t mesh. The energetic young professionals looked at their supply chain jobs as a stepping stone.

Marion reflects:

"We survived those early days through team-building sessions, training, and we optimized."

Marion thinks that the path to a supply chain career is different today, noting that energetic young professionals entering supply chain often have studied supply chain and are choosing supply chain over marketing and other less sexy functions.

Buyers, Planners, and Analysts

Globalization, outsourcing, offshoring, and low-cost manufacturing have meant that supply chains have grown increasingly complicated and important. Supply chain optimization can drive the cost of goods and inventory levels down, and profit margins up.

Because of that, the visibility of supply chain professionals within organizations has increased. No longer just someone placing a purchase order, but an expert driving value throughout the organization.

In the past year, Marion has had three friends tell him that their high-school-aged son or daughter is planning to go into a supply chain career. 

These high school students seem to understand that a job as a supply chain analyst, buyer or planner might be waiting for them after college, but after that, what?

Entry level supply chain jobs provide a great opportunity for young supply chain professionals to get a 360-degree view of the company they work for. Buyers, planners, supply chain analysts, and other positions work with Finance, Sales, Research and Development, Marketing, Engineering, Quality, and other functions. That kind of visibility can be invaluable to a young professional trying to figure out what’s next.

Supply Chain Middle Management

The supply chain middle management career move is a true inflection point in the supply chain professionals career path. Before this point, a young supply chain professional was not permanently marked.

A supply chain analyst can grow up to be almost anything. Same with the buyer or the planner or the coordinator. But spend a few years as a purchasing manager or planning manager or inventory manager or strategic sourcing manager, and that’s who you’ll end up being.

Even if you weren’t thinking about staying in purchasing for your entire career, after your LinkedIn profile lists you as a purchasing guy or gal for years upon years on end, that’s how the rest of the world is going to view you. 

If you’re in a supply chain middle management role and have been doing it for a few years, you should consider lobbying your employer to change your job title from purchasing manager or planning manager or inventory manager or strategic sourcing manager to supply chain manager. There’s a halfway decent chance that your employer won’t know the difference between purchasing or planning or inventory control or strategic sourcing and supply chain and allow you to make the change.

In the meantime, take a close look at your company’s supply chain. Does your specific function have an impact on the broader supply chain? Does your purchasing job involve strategic sourcing? Does your planning role require you to optimize your company's inventory? 

Maybe you’re already managing that supply chain, and you need your job title updated.

And, if not, take time during your supply chain middle management years to figure out the direction you want to head. And then work toward that plan. 

Supply Chain Director Level

Do a web search for Supply Chain Director jobs. Supply Chain Directors are the job level when a lot of companies roll all the purchasing, planning, sourcing, and other supply chain functions under one job title. If you find yourself in a job called Supply Chain Director (or Director, Global Supply Chain or Director, Supply Chain Management), congratulations.

That means that you’ve likely excelled in multiple supply chain functions and are now seen as the company expert. It means that you probably performed more than one role at the entry level and within supply chain middle management level, i.e., you ran purchasing, did some analysis and planned some production and source strategically and controlled some inventory. 

But it also means that you’ve got an 80 percent chance that you’ve reached your last job title. 

If you want to grow in a career within supply chain beyond your Supply Chain Director role, the first thing you need to consider is: Who do Supply Chain Directors report to?

In small and medium-sized companies, Supply Chain Directors will often report into non-supply chain roles: heads of manufacturing, operations or finance. 

In larger companies, Supply Chain Directors will sometimes report into higher-level supply chain positions such as Supply Chain Vice Presidents and sometimes Chief Supply Chain Officers. But that's the luxury of working at a larger company where a Supply Chain Director may not be the director of the company's entire supply chain, but just one facet of it. Supply Chain Directors of specific geographic regions or Supply Chain Directors of limited product lines, for example. 

If you work at a larger company, you may have the opportunity to a Supply Chain VP role, but not everyone will make that leap. 

If you work at smaller companies, your Supply Chain Director role is as far as you can go within supply chain. That's why Marion gives Supply Chain Directors an 80 percent chance of staying with that job title until retirement. 

Other Supply Chain Career Paths

Once you've gained some significant experience in supply chain, at supply chain middle management or director levels, there is the option of pursuing the consultant career path. Supply chain consultants continue to be in high demand and true supply chain experts (usually you need to be a specialist i.e. supply chain analytics, supply chain ERP integration, etc.) can enjoy a healthy career helping companies drive bottom-line optimization. 

One other career path that is becoming more popular with supply chain professionals is moving from supply chain management into general management. A seasoned supply chain pro has spent their career optimizing their company's bottom line and integrating sales, finance, manufacturing, engineering, etc. Supply chain professionals are learning and, their employers are learning, that supply chain professionals are ideally suited to running a company's entire operation.