In 2011, Thomas Kappen was an accomplished young professional, but he was ready for a career change. The former application developer for Oracle Corp. believed he had learned all he could at the technology company; he thought business school could lead to new opportunities.
"You want to get an MBA to open doors," he says.
He considered how his skills – negotiation, process improvement and supplier management, to name a few – could transfer to a new field with the help of a new degree.
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He said he'd thought those skills would be useful for someone who wanted to excel in a supply chain job. Now, he's in his second year at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University studying supply chain management. He recently completed an internship at the consumer product company Reckitt Benckiser, where he worked as a purchasing intern.
The 10-week gig left him with an experience typical of the supply-chain management field: "Everyday was something new," he says. "Not one day was boring."
Supply-chain management has recently shown up in countless publications as a hot concentration for MBAs.
In this field, "You source goods, you make them and you get them to the consumer," says Amy Cathey, executive director of the MBA program at University of Tennessee—Knoxville. UT, which launched a full-time supply chain program in the 1980s, welcomed its first class of global executive MBA students specializing in this field in January.
Estimated job growth is one reason the field is booming, partially fueled by technology changes in an ever-evolving global market. The lifetime for electronic products is measured in months – not years – which means companies must constantly reconfigure their supply chains, says Michael Hugos, author of "Essentials of Supply Chain Management" and a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
New grads may land jobs such as purchasing managers, logistics managers or consultants. To prepare for these positions, they'll have to be selective about the classes they take in school.
"They need a broad foundational understanding of business," says Cathey. "They need some basic finance, accounting, human resources management, marketing."
Classes in purchasing and sourcing, supply chain operations, logistics and the movement of goods can also prepare them, she says.
Aspiring MBA candidates who plan to work in this industry should be aware of three aspects of the supply chain field, experts say.
1. The global market: As the world becomes more interconnected, graduates must be prepared to do business with an international frame of reference.
"In the past if you made a product in the United States you were going to sell that product in the United States and that was pretty much it. A few items would be international," says John Fowler, chairman of the supply chain management department at Carey. "If I go into a retail outlet today, I'll see products from all over the world."
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Graduates should be prepared to consider how supply chains function as a product moves from one country to the next, says Hugos.
"They will be working a global network of suppliers and a global network of customers," he says. MBAs will have to stay on their toes to be a good supply chain manager."It requires the mental agility of a good stockbroker. You're always weighing things. You're always watching world markets," he says.
2. The long hours: Some supply chain students should be prepared to check email until late into the night, experts say. Those in operations, for example, may have especially long days. "Sometimes plants run 24/7," Cathey says. "They may have a non-traditional work schedule."
Consultants may also have long days. "It's not unusual for a young consultant to work 70 to 80 hours a week," she says.
If students pursue a career in manufacturing, the work week can be 50 to 55 hours. "It certainly would not be out of the ordinary," Fowler says.