Career Q&A

By Mary Siegfried

Q & A: Expectations For Today's Graduates

Executives share their perspectives about the skills required for new graduates entering the supply management profession.

New graduates seeking their first job in supply management should be equipped with a solid business education, strong communication, relationship-building and analytical skills, as well as an impressive resume that lists internships and extracurricular activities highlighting their leadership and teamwork abilities. It's a tall order for new graduates to fill, but supply management executives agree that today's global business environment requires new hires to possess stronger business knowledge and skills than graduates from years past.

The complex and ever-changing world of supply management also dictates that new graduates have a broad educational background and be willing to expand their career goals down the road by taking advantage of certification classes and even obtaining a master's degree. To understand what executives are looking for when hiring new graduates, Inside Supply Management® asked several top-level professionals for their views on what skills, education and background they believe are important.

Q: What classes do you believe are most useful from a "practical application" standpoint in your organization?

Most executives agree that students should have a good foundation in general business principles, with an emphasis in finance and an overall understanding of supply management principles and practices, especially negotiations, cost management, supplier strategy and analytics.

Because of the diversity of the work required today in supply management, Lisa Martin, C.P.M, senior vice president, worldwide procurement for Pfizer, Inc. and current chair of ISM's board of directors, says a well-rounded educational experience is important. "This allows them to effectively engage with their internal customers to understand their suppliers' business as well," she notes. In addition to supply chain/procurement classes, Martin says classes in marketing, engineering and finance provide "value across all areas of procurement."

A "good working knowledge" of finance is helpful, says Jeff Jarzynka, global commodity manager for Honeywell Aerospace Q, especially when working in an organization that is "heavily engaged in outsourcing." He also points out that operations management classes will be helpful for new hires "in terms of speaking the same language and building credibility with production stakeholders."

Aaron Frank, director, global procurement for Invesco, says he also values engineering classes that teach students "systemic problem solving." He says engineers are good at taking an unstructured problem and figuring out how to get at the root of that problem and putting a solution in place. "That is a lot of what we do in procurement and supply chain," he says. "That is why that ability to be a problem-solver is important." Executives also say they like to find graduates who have taken classes in accounting, information analysis and project management, as well as computer classes in Excel and Access.

Q: What non-academic skills are important to your organization?

Graduates who have good communication and business skills are very attractive to supply management professionals, who list a variety of skills as being "extremely important" to their organization. The emphasis executives place on strong interpersonal, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills highlight the fact that today's supply manager is working in a business world that revolves around partnerships and building relationships.

"I can't stress enough the importance of communications and interpersonal skills," says Anthony Nieves, C.PM., senior vice president — supply management for Hilton Hotels Corporation World Headquarters. "People skills and interpersonal skills are extremely important. A person needs to project confidence and competency without coming across as cocky or conceited," he says.

Frank of Invesco says he looks at a candidate's ability to build relationships. He says success in supply management is contingent on the ability to partner with the budget owner, which is why it is critical to have that budget holder "see you as someone who adds value to the overall organization."

He admits that relationship building is a skill that most new hires don't have when they take that first job. "But some have that innate ability," he says. "They are just more wired to be customer-service oriented. It can come through in an interview."

Communications skills — whether verbal or written — are considered important to supply management executives. According to Linda Lundquist, program manager, employee development for Delphi Global Supply Management, those skills include presentation delivery, writing appropriate e-mails and phone etiquette. She also emphasizes the ability to integrate information to create a "big picture" view.

Honeywell's Jarzynka says solid communication skills are absolutely essential in the global business world. "What used to be done in face-to-face meetings is now done through virtual meetings, teleconferences and e-mail," he points out. "The person who has the ability to develop and send clear, crisp messages to the right audience will be one step ahead of the competition."

Pfizer's Lisa Martin notes that "influencing skills through excellent written and verbal communication skills are essential." Complementing those skills are good analytical skills and the ability to build a compelling business case. She says those skills provide a "powerful combination."

Jeff McLaughlin, director, capital equipment procurement for Texas Instruments, Inc., says he believes the ability work in a cross-functional team environment also is important for new hires.

While executives agree that such skills are imperative, they admit that most new graduates do not possess all of the skills they will need as they mature in their careers. Many of the needed skills are difficult to learn in a classroom, executives say. They agree that on-the-job experience is the best teacher when it comes to acquiring skills such as the ability to influence, understand team dynamics and thinking out of the box.

Q: What experience in part-time jobs or internships do you consider useful?

Internships in business, especially supply management, make the strongest impression, executives say. "Any exposure a student can get working in a large organization and getting an understanding of what it is like to work in that environment is important," says Invesco's Frank. He adds that he especially takes note of any student who has done data or financial analysis or been on a sourcing team.

Lundquist of Delphi says when evaluating a student's work experience she looks to the level of interaction the student has had with peers and customers, the type of assignments and projects he or she worked on, as well as the results that were achieved. Martin of Pfizer notes that part-time jobs or internships that give students the opportunity to "gain experience presenting in front of others" or the opportunity to "build their organization and project management skills" are very valuable.

Study abroad was cited as an experience that can be helpful to new hires, according to David Swenson, director, sourcing operations for 3M Company. He says studying abroad can help students develop a "more global mindset and this can be a differentiator when performing global sourcing."

While working at a part-time job unrelated to supply management or business (for example, a restaurant or retail outlet) does not hold the same value as an internship, executives are quick to say that such work speaks to the graduate's work ethic and time management. "What I take from a part-time job is that the student is the type who can balance school and work schedules, and that he or she is motivated to earn money. That is a positive," points out Frank of Invesco. "It is more of a clue to their work ethic than their professional ability."

Jami Coop, senior procurement professional at ConAgra Foods, says if graduates do not have strong internship experience, they should be able to explain how their work experiences can relate to the position for which they are applying. "For example, a candidate who has worked summers delivering furniture for a retail company has experience in distribution planning, time management, prioritization and has an understanding customer needs," she explains. "If they understand and articulate that experience in a way that focuses on sustainable, profitable growth, it becomes very useful."

Q: What extracurricular activities in college do you value?

Executives agree that extracurricular activities indicate to them that a student is a hard worker and understands the pressure of a competitive environment. Activities that draw attention include sports, academic and professional organizations, and student government, says Hilton Hotel's Nieves. "Almost any activity that involves teaming or working with groups of people is advantageous," he adds.

Invesco's Frank says he looks at whether the student has taken on a leadership role in an activity. He adds that participation in sports or clubs combined with academic success proves that the graduate knows how to balance time and understands and is willing to work in a competitive environment.

Playing team sports is a real plus on a resume, says Honeywell's Jarzynka. "It gives an indication that the person has experience working with others toward a common goal," he says. "It also tends to mean you have someone who understands winning and losing — and people who know how it feels to lose are more likely to be motivated to do the preparation necessary to win."

Q: How important is an MBA in supply management?

Nieves of Hilton Hotels says the requirement of an MBA seems to be almost cyclical in nature. He says earning an MBA has regained its importance in the business world. Nieves points out that it is more important for mid- and upper-level managers and it does reflect "drive and determination."

Executives agree that an MBA offers a "leg up" when moving up the career ladder, but is not as important for the new graduate looking for his or her first job. In fact, Frank of Invesco says it is better to have a few years of work experience before pursuing an MBA. "Without question you will get more out of it when you can bring three to four years of relevant work experience," he says. "I learned as much from my classmates as from my professors," he says about obtaining his MBA. He says an MBA is valuable because it is a respected credential and offers a network of business contacts for the future.

Martin of Pfizer says an MBA demonstrates a "person's commitment to the supply management field" and can be an important attribute when evaluating candidates who want to join the supply management organization or for promotion within the organization. Jarzynka of Honeywell adds that the right MBA program can provide valuable tools and techniques. However, he adds, "there's no substitute for good, old-fashioned experience." He points out that continuing education is a way to supplement on-the-job training.

The importance of an MBA depends on the individual's career aspirations, the value the organization places on a higher degree and the educational background of the individual, says Delphi's Lundquist. She points out that an MBA provides many opportunities including developing management and technical skills, conducting financial analysis and preparing budgets, and improving communication and analytical skills — all foundational steps in becoming successful managers/leaders. She adds that many companies encourage obtaining an MBA in order to be considered for leadership positions in their organization.

"It is likely that more companies in the future will include supply management leaders in the executive leadership group or a supply management background/experience will be required for the top executive position," she says. Lundquist also notes that if an individual has an engineering or technical undergraduate/graduate degree, an MBA can provide an opportunity to improve business skills in areas such as finance, accounting, economics, marketing and strategy.

She says her organization encourages new hires to pursue continuing education programs or certifications because they indicate an interest in maintaining professionalism and improving knowledge and skills. "New hires actually evaluate the attractiveness of companies by their interest in promoting education/certification, providing defined career paths and willingness to provide career development opportunities," she says.

Coop of ConAgra Foods says many recent graduates quickly learn there is not necessarily one right answer to business problems. That's why she believes "learning how to effectively deal with change while managing many different types of personalities can be a real plus."


Mary Siegfried is a freelance writer based in Chandler, Arizona. She has covered the supply management field for several years. For more information, send an e-mail to author@ism.ws.