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  July 30th, 2012 | Written by

Back to School

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Exporters are enrolling employees in formal supply chain management education programs—and the investment is yielding big returns.

Brenda Patton can’t talk much about her employer—as is the nature of government contractors—but she’s happy to talk about how her newly-minted Masters of Science in Supply Chain Management (MS-SCM) from the University of San Diego (USD) has made her a company asset. Patton, like thousands of other professionals, is supplementing her education with financial support from her employer. In exchange for a paid (or in some cases, partially paid) masters program, Patton put in the hours of study and hard work needed to “master” the art and science of supply-chain management, adding tremendous value—often in terms of dollars and cents—to her organization.

“We’re designed for the working professional,” says Lauren Lukens, director of MS-SCM for the School of Business Administration at USD. The 25-week program is conducted primarily online, but with five residences—three-to four-day on-campus classes that provide the opportunity to participate directly with professors and other students from the individual’s cohort. A “cohort” is the student’s group of partners they will work with for the duration of the program while they put together their individual project.

USD refers to this project as the “advanced integrative project,” which serves as the focal point of a student’s education for the second year of USD’s program. Other schools will use differing names, though many will have the same premise: a hands-on, real-life project created by the student with input from their company and school faculty for practical application of the principles, theories and practices of supply-chain management. The result is a classic win-win: the student gets a first-class educational experience, and the employer gets paid back in spades for their investment.

Lukens tells us, “We typically tell the students [the value saved or generated for the employer by the student’s project] needs to be on the order of $50,000 or more.” Consider that the program’s costs fall just south of that mark (it’s a 36-unit program priced at $1,280 per unit for a total cost of $46,080), and you begin to see how funding an employee’s MS-SCM is an excellent deal for an exporter.

Brenda Patton successfully completed USD’s program in May of this year. Her advanced integrative project was somewhat different than what’s typical, but her supply chain is different than what most of us call to mind when we hear the term. A 22-year veteran of her (unnamed) company, Brenda was used to handling more standard production and materials-based supply chains. “The environment that I work in now does not have those same attributes to it. The attribute in my environment now is primarily software based,” she says.

“All my procedures, all my processes that I have to live by are developed for a manufacturing environment,” says Brenda. “Here I am in this software environment and the risk is totally different.” One of the big challenges of her advanced integrative project wasn’t dealing with clients at all, but rather speaking the language of the higher-ups in her own company. She needed them to understand how and why the nature of her software-based supply chain was radically different than what the company was accustomed to, and what must be done to create efficiencies in her new “environment.”

For example, Brenda was recently working with a government customer who wanted her to take all of its disparate IT systems that couldn’t talk to each other and consolidate them into one system that could communicate. “So if you think about that, what do you deliver?” she asks. “You might deliver some servers. You’re likely to deliver some software. You might have modified some off-the-shelf software, you might create a new code. The supply chain is pretty flat.” Brenda describes how the client had 433 sub-contracted personnel working to maintain all those systems; her team reduced the number to around 80, and it ultimately expanded to about 110.

Brenda learned how to handle these items through her advanced integrative project, which she says had a four-fold focus: review the procedures of the contract, then the terms and conditions, establish a supply-chain architecture, and develop a software tool that would create invoices for labor sub-contractors, standardized for every supply, and have the invoices automatically routed for internal approvals. This last item is known as SLIM: Subcontractor Labor and Invoice Management.

For an idea of the value generated by Brenda’s participation in USD’s MS-SCM program, look no further than SLIM: “That tool alone,” she says, “on one proposal, one program, is estimated to save us $3.5 million.

“The program at USD helped me with understanding some of the relationships between organizations, internally and externally.”

Dunlap-Stone University is another leading international trade school, and it offers a Bachelor of Science Degree in International Trade Management (BS-ITM). Like USD, the Dunlap-Stone program offers access to top-flight professional faculty, operates with a hands-on project-based model, and 96 percent of its student population is funded to some degree by their employer. The university differs from USD in that it is entirely online, its students participate from every corner the world, and of course it offers a bachelor’s rather than a master’s degree.

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Dunlap-Stone President Dr. Donald R. Burton says the university “started out 17 years ago to provide the industry with a much-needed certification program, so that there was a commonality or a standard by which both exporter and importer on opposite sides of a transaction could realize they were speaking the same language.” Today, Dunlap-Stone offers the BS-ITM degree with three emphases: Management, Trade Compliance and Global Supply Chain. With more than 50 compliance or trade-related courses, students are able to get their four-year degree entirely from Dunlap-Stone. And as Burton points out, the humanities classes, for instance, offer intriguing and useful options, rather than a class that simply fits the student’s schedule and university requirement.

“How about Terrorism in the 21st Century being something that fulfils your Humanities requirement?” asks Burton. The class’s instructor did two tours in Iraq, and during his last tour he gave intelligence briefings to General Petraeus. It’s a fitting class for the university, as it is also a leader in specialized compliances, such as ITAR—International Traffic and Arms Regulations.

“[ITAR] is the exporting rules by the State Department regarding anything that goes boom, helps something go boom, discusses something that goes boom, or carries something that goes boom,” says Burton. “So if it’s a jet aircraft, military, anything along that line, that’s these set of rules. And those rules change absolutely daily. We have staff here that that’s all they do is make sure those courses are up-to-date.”

Not only is Dunlap-Stone current with their trade compliances, the university is also in step with major university undergraduate programs. Burton says that each of the textbooks used in the school’s undergraduate program are the exact books used by such prestigious universities as Harvard and Stanford. “We give all the material that students need to understand the theory and all of that,” says Burton, “and on top of that we put the practical hands-on. The rigor is there. They’re all very intense courses, but they’re all hands-on.”

One theme that comes up repeatedly when talking to the leaders of these universities is the idea of giving smaller companies—and even individuals—a “seat at the table” with some of the world’s top corporations. Federal Express, for example, sent a number of employees to Dunlap-Stone to become customs brokers, and others to learn about export licensing from the State Department and Commerce Department. Curious about the volume of FedEx students, Burton phoned the company’s headquarters in Memphis to inquire and learned that company execs felt it wasn’t quite “enough for their international sales people to know how to physically move the goods and services,” Burton recalls. “They needed to understand the plight of those customers.”

So each of the students went through the program, completing hands-on projects along the way in a bid to really fill the shoes of those companies they would help. “They’re learning everything that their customer is doing in order to better serve their customer. And that’s Federal Express,” says Burton. “It was shocking to me that they were willing to put their sales people into the shoes of their customers.”

Though Burton can count some of the largest corporations in the world among those sending employees through his program, his passion for the small manufacturer and desire to help them export is palpable when he speaks. He recalls the story of a widow based in Idaho who was worried that without her husband she would have to move from her ranch into the city, and she called Burton in hopes that she could make a living with international trade. She enrolled in Dunlap-Stone and took Exporting/Importing Environment, a 200-level class which covers the nine steps of exporting and importing. “She was thrilled because she could end up becoming an agent for other companies,” says Burton, “so she didn’t have to buy the goods that she was selling, she just had to find buyers for them and be the liaison to make it all happen.” She’s been quite successful with her endeavor, and still has her ranch in Idaho.