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Education Hot market for supply-chain specialists drives enrolment

Seneca supply-chain grad Michele Custoreri, now an inventory specialist at quartz countertop importer Caesarstone Canada in Toronto, went back to school after age 40.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

A hard dose of reality often comes in the first day of classes: professors talking about limited job prospects, sweetened by words about following one's calling.

But for Gunja Bhatt, the opposite was the case.

On the first day, her accounting teacher said to students in Seneca College's postgraduate certificate program in logistics and supply-chain management that they needn't fret. The jobs will be there.

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"She said, 'There's a lot of demand for supply-chain people. It's a growing field, so don't worry about the job,' " Ms. Bhatt said.

At 22, Ms. Bhatt is among the youngest in her one-year program, which she entered after graduating with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience and biodiversity from the University of Toronto. She enrolled mainly to get a job, she said.

"I was actually very scared coming into a business program, because I'd only taken one business class in my university career. Everything [else] was science, science, science. So I do have to work 10 times as hard as everybody else," she said.

Students come from a variety of academic programs, but many have some experience in supply-chain management and logistics. It's the side of business which oversees everything from purchasing materials to co-ordinating inventory and the distribution of finished goods.

Several community colleges offer specialty certificates in this field.

They attract students squarely focused on getting a job.

This was the case with Michele Custoreri. After a career working for Heinz Canada, she left as the company downsized, and enrolled at Seneca. Ms. Custoreri described going back to school when she was older than 40 as one of the toughest things she has ever done. Yet "I needed to be competitive in the marketplace in order to advance my career, in order to beat out the younger people for jobs."

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She noted that purchasing is typically seen as the glamorous side of the supply chain. But she chose a different route: "I like the planning end of it, because there's so much diversity in it, and it's not as competitive at my end as it is in the purchasing end."

She now works as an inventory specialist and demand planner at Caesarstone Canada, an importer of quartz countertops in the north Toronto suburb of Concord.

Interest is growing in these programs.

Seneca and Humber College, both in Toronto, have increased enrolment, and each graduate about 100 to 120 students a year with postgraduate certificates in the program. Both also stress the credentials students get, particularly training throughout the year on SAP supply-chain software, which is a standard program used by managers.

"The SAP system has allowed companies to have a central office that can co-ordinate worldwide activities. The real brains in the business is the co-ordination of activities," said John Bottomley, co-ordinator of Seneca's program.

"Supply chain really grew up with the advent of computer systems. Manufacturing always had a lot of data, but it was processed manually. But once we got integrated computer systems, co-ordination could become easier across countries, across time zones, and therefore companies could become global," he said.

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It's a misconception, though, to see the field as entirely computer driven. "You still have to be able to shake someone's hand, look them in the eye and tell them what you need," said Angelo Crupi, co-ordinator of Humber's Supply Chain Management certificate program.

And businesses are looking for those people. Most graduates will be moving into entry-level management jobs, Mr. Crupi says.

"We have a variety of companies coming to us looking for graduates. We have some very faithful employers contacting us and coming to our career fairs. It's retail operations, [international fashion and home-furnishings retailer] TJX, Canadian Tire. It's logistics companies, trucking companies. Some of them might be looking for purchasers. Some are transportation companies. And then some might need entry-level managers to run their distribution centres."

Each college program offers an academic niche for students. For instance, the postgraduate logistics management certificate at Centennial College in Toronto concentrates on providing the academic coursework for professionals certified with the Canadian Institute of Traffic and Transportation, a professional development association in the supply-chain field.

"This gives them the academic training to get them to that next level, as a supervisor or management position," said Jim Wyer, a professor of international business studies at Centennial.

Though enrolment is increasing, there is still room for growth.

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"Every BComm and MBA will have one course in supply chain. Well, that's not enough to really be functional in the area," said Mr. Bottomley at Seneca. "I get continually surprised by the number of employees I talk to that say they never knew a program like this existed."

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