Usually awarded by professional organizations or education providers, certifications show that someone has completed a course, passed an assessment and committed themselves to mastering the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in his or her profession.
Within supply chain, certifications are often viewed as a route to higher salary levels, better job advancement opportunities and a way to edge out the competition in the workforce.
Some of the more popular acronyms you’ll see following a supply chain professional’s title include the Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) from the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM), the Certified Professional in Supply Management (CPSM) awarded by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) and SCPro Certification from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP). And while these tend to be the go-to certification options for the sector, there are other programs that help individuals master different aspects of the supply chain.
Specific to transportation, for example, SMC³ offers an online education and certification program focused on less-than-truckload (LTL) freight. Once they complete the course, professionals can become certified in LTL by SMC³, which recognizes that development of skills and competencies are required to succeed in today’s LTL environment.
Brian Thompson, chief commercial officer at SMC³, says the current transportation market has sparked more interest in the company’s online course and certification. Some of that is due to the fact that more people are operating remotely (and as such, looking for online education options) and some of the interest is based on the sheer complexity of the LTL market.
“Education has come to the forefront as companies look for ways to keep everyone informed about new industry trends and help employees do their daily jobs. LTL can be a foreign language for someone who was focused primarily on truckload or intermodal LTL; it’s kind of its own animal.”
Pricing, terms and carrier rules (e.g., limits on liability, contract conditions, base rate structures, etc.) are all tricky with LTL, he adds, and require some specialized knowledge to master.
Thompson points out:
“With LTL, it’s never just a flat freight rate per mile. There are discounting programs and multi-layers to the pricing, including base rates, FAK (freight all kinds) structures, on-build discounts, off-build discounts and incentives,”
Those complexities have increased over the last two and a half years as e-commerce volumes increased and freight capacity fluctuated across most transportation modes. In response, he says more professionals are looking for ways to educate themselves on the fine points of operating in the LTL market.
“We’ve definitely seen increased interest in LTL education,” says Thompson. In addition to taking online courses and earning certifications, he says students are requesting access to industry experts. They want to ask them questions, get perspectives from other people in the sector and talk to carriers about current trends, challenges and solutions.
In response, SMC³ developed a live programming option that encompasses five courses, each of which runs for four weeks. The company brings in experts from carriers, logistics providers and industry associations to go over key topics and answer student questions that are often as fundamental as: “Where is the first place that you go for information?” This not only provides real-life perspective, but it also helps students get what they’re asking certification providers like SMC³ for: Answers to some of their most pressing questions.
Switching up the approach
Challenged by ongoing supply chain disruptions, rising freight rates, the national labor shortages and high consumer demand for products, professionals are turning to associations and education providers for help. At ISM, Director Tom Martin says the volatile operating environment has driven more interest in topics like supply chain risk management. Professionals also want to know more about environmental, social and governance (ESG), diversity and sustainability, all of which have become hot button topics over the last few years.
Martin says supply chain professionals also want education that’s more “actionable and less academic,” and particularly when it comes to certifications. He says ISM helps to bridge that gap with its flagship CPSM certification, which covers the end-to-end supply chain while also factoring in the procurement professional’s broader role in the end-to-end supply chain. The program also considers how procurement integrates with both internal and external stakeholders and takes a deep dive into subjects like Scope 3 emissions, which are generated by activities from assets not owned or controlled by the organization itself.
Recently, ISM also updated and relaunched its Certified Professional and Supplier Diversity (CPSD) certificate program, which focuses on diversity as one of the 11 principles of sustainability and emphasizes corporate social responsibility. Going forward, Martin sees even more opportunity to fuse topics like procurement, supplier management and ESG from the educational perspective.
He says ISM will also continue to focus on the basics while also exploring a micro-credentialing approach that would be based on a “hub and spoke” model. Everyone would take the same fundamental courses, but would then “spoke out” into more specialized coursework and exams (e.g., supplier diversity, ESG, etc.) as desired.
With the micro-credentialing, the goal is to build a body of knowledge that lets students come away from the experience with multiple credentials, according to Martin, versus learning about different topics in silos and not understanding how they all integrate with one another.
This approach also caters to high-potential individuals who are advancing in their careers and wanting to learn more about specific topics like data science and analytics.
ISM, Director Tom Martin:
“As professionals continue to learn they’ll be able to earn additional credentials in different areas, versus just holding one certification and continuing to recertify over and over.”
A Growing Awareness for Education
As he looks around at the current certification environment and the companies and students that are leveraging it, ASCM’s CEO Abe Eshkenazi says the emphasis is being split between academic fundamentals and professional development. One recent ASCM survey found that companies are especially interested in skills like critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving, most of which aren’t being taught in the traditional academic setting. Instead, they’re innate, gained on the job and/or obtained via certification or other educational programs.
Asked whether today’s certification programs are adapting to meet these needs, Eshkenazi says he’s seeing the diversification of educational content:
“Traditionally, we served the industry through our certifications, which historically were a corollary for the baccalaureate or master’s degrees.”
Also noting that ASCM has since expanded its content to include both entry-level and mid-career professionals, the latter of which may be on track for career advancement and/or seeking new jobs.
“Historically, our ecosystem centered on giving individuals foundational knowledge that they needed to be able to gain employment.”
Today, that ecosystem includes foundational, self-paced content (not all of which is certificate-based) plus new certificate opportunities for students who want to gain a deeper knowledge in procurement, warehousing or planning. The latter is in development and will be released in July.
Served up in bite-sized portions—versus three-to-six-month long programs—these certificate programs fulfill the need for immediate content in a just-in-time format. Through this evolution in supply chain certification, individuals can gain the specialized education they need to be able to advance in their careers, get a new position and/or perform even better in their current jobs.
Looking ahead, Eshkenazi anticipates a growing need for competency-based education in the supply chain field, where there’s a clear difference between having an academic degree and actually being able to run, orchestrate and manage the various aspects of a supply chain. This is yet another area where certification programs can step in and help to fill the gap.
Eshkenazi points out:
“The expectation is that [graduates] are going to hit the ground running, and that’s a bit shortsighted given the current supply chain complexities. Yet how do we prepare these individuals? And, where do individuals go to get the foundational knowledge and experience if you don’t provide it for them?”
As supply chain certifications continue to evolve, Thompson says the way these programs are viewed, used and leveraged is also changing. Where SMC³’s offering is focused on LTL and its related challenges, for example, he says the underlying issue right now is the ongoing uncertainty that supply chain professionals are grappling with on a daily basis. Having to step into the unknown creates additional hesitancy and anxiety for these professionals, who can avoid some of this angst by gaining more education in their specific areas of expertise.
Thompson says the benefits of certification radiate beyond the individual student and also touch the person’s employer. A logistics service provider that can show its clients that its employees are up to speed and experts in their fields, for instance, may have a better shot of winning and keeping that client’s business.
“Especially for small to mid-sized logistics providers, or those that may be focused on a specific market niche. Certifications can help round out their portfolios and give the company and its employees instant credibility with potential clients.”
Caltech's Center for Technology and Management Education specializes in executive education and development programs for next-generation leaders at technology-driven manufacturing and distribution companies that orchestrate global supply chains. Learn more
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