Podcast: Supply Chain Skills Employers are Seeking- with Sime Curkovic, Professor at Western Michigan University

By Published On: November 19, 2022

Hosts: Rodney Apple and Mike Ogle

In This Episode:

We speak with Sime Curkovic, a Professor of Operations and Sourcing Management at Western Michigan University. Sime talks about his start in supply chain along with how he got into becoming a supply chain instructor. He provides an in-depth dive into the hard skills and soft skills students need in order to best appeal to what employers are looking for.  In particular, he shines a light the ability to use data analytics and make better and faster decisions using the cloud-based tools available today vs. trying to work with just color-coded Excel spreadsheets. He sees supply chain as a well rounded major with lots of upside. He also places high value on hands-on, experiential learning. Sime sees hybrid work as the future, but is concerned about totally remote positions that may not provide the best value out of talent. He also encourages students to look at the big picture of where work can develop you rather than simply chasing money. He places very high value on the ability to grow your networks. Sime closes by emphasizing how setting aside time for reading can greatly impact your career.

Who is Sime Curkovik?

Sime Curkovic is a Professor of Operations and Sourcing Management at Western Michigan University. He received his undergraduate degree in Management Systems from GMI Engineering & Management Institute (now known as Kettering University). He received his Ph.D. degree from Michigan State University. Dr. Curkovic has taught several courses in sourcing, operations, logistics, and multinational management. His research interests include environmentally responsible manufacturing, total quality management, supply chain management, and integrated global strategic sourcing. His professional memberships include ASQ, APICS, DSI, INFORMS, NAPM, and POMS. Dr. Curkovic’s previous work experiences were with General Motors in the Midwest, Mexico, and Germany. Dr. Curkovic is a born U.S. citizen and his name is of Croatian descent.

[00:01:49] Mike Ogle: Sime, we’re happy to have you with us today on the supply chain careers podcast. Welcome. 

[00:01:53] Sime Curkovic: Thank you for having me. I always say it’s a great day to be in supply chain management. I think I say that seriously, but also sarcastically, right? 

[00:02:02] Mike Ogle: Well, we all tend to get blame for it. Every time you introduce yourself and say, you’re in supply chain, it’s like, ah, it’s your fault. 

[00:02:09] Sime Curkovic: Yeah. But at least people are talking to us now. Right. Pre COVID, they didn’t know what we were teaching. 

[00:02:14] Mike Ogle: Yeah. That was this conversation turnoff. 

[00:02:16] Rodney Apple: Or the deer in the headlights look when you tell somebody what you do for a living and what, what, what is that supply chain. 

[00:02:22] Sime Curkovic: Pre COVID, I would go to open houses and start talking about supply chain management to high school grads. And I would pretty much kill the party. Now I’m the life of the party. So yeah, things have changed a lot in the last two years. 

[00:02:34] Mike Ogle: And so how did you get started in supply chain? What events or people influenced you the most? 

[00:02:40] Sime Curkovic: I’ll try to make a long story short, but basically, I grew up in Lansing, Michigan. My parents were born and raised in Croatia and at that time it was a communist country and it just didn’t work out for them, the whole centrally planned economy thing. So, they immigrated to the United States and my dad basically discovered Michigan, the Midwest, Lansing, General Motors, a division called Oldsmobile. At that time, they were cranking out over a million Oldsmobiles per year and was literally the automotive capital of the world. So, I just grew up in a factory town where companies designed and built things and it afforded my father an amazing quality of life. So I grew up right up until high school thinking that I was gonna be a factory worker. So I went from thinking I was gonna work in a factory to becoming an educated idiot, like a college professor, which I am right now. And so I went on these tours and I wanted to be a part of this. I loved how my dad basically commanded an upper middle class lifestyle, by just going to work and working hard and we started to pick up on something was happening out there where maybe this opportunity wasn’t gonna be there for me. Right. So then we started talking about college and one thing led to another and I still wanted to be associated with auto and factories.

So I ended up going to GMI Kettering University of Flint, Michigan, which is a true co-op school. You work and go to school in three-month intervals. And my corporate sponsor was General Motors and I started working at GM as a high schooler at age 17. And in college fell in love with operations management, building stuff, putting out fires, problem solving, getting product out the door. And then when I was at General Motors, I got into supply chain and procurement. And at that time it was very tactical. Companies were highly vertically integrated. It was very clerical, very bureaucratic, nothing too strategic about it, but then things started to change.

They started outsourcing stuff. Then they started outsourcing important stuff. And then they started building factories in Mexico and they told some suppliers that weren’t owned by General Motors. Hey, follow us to Mexico. So by the time I finished high school and started college and finished college, without even realizing it, I was in supply chain management and that was right around the time in the early nineties when supply chain got strategic. And that’s when I got excited and I just kind of ran with it. So I just find it strange that my professional aspiration was to work in a factory, to be a UAW worker and command a high quality of life doing so, to seeing the writing on the wall and stumbling into supply chain management and all worked out for me. I’ve always thought that life is all about timing, but that’s kind of my background.

[00:05:23] Rodney Apple: And so, would love to segue, I’ve recruited in the field for over 20 years and also noticed in the beginning, when I started, it was more tactical than strategic. From your vantage point, having worked in industry, as well as on the academia side now, what have you observed in terms of the hard, soft skills, the evolution, if you will, as it relates to being a successful supply chain management professional.

[00:05:49] Sime Curkovic: Yeah. This is the question that I get asked often that you would think I could answer better than I do, right? Like if I get asked this all the time, why can’t I just spit out the answer? And I think part of the confusion lies in what’s actually a hard skill. And then what are the hard skills? And then what’s a soft skill and what are those soft skills needed to be successful in this thing that we call supply chain management.

So let me begin by saying, I think these hard skills are the skill sets that we have to teach our students and future supply chain professionals, where we basically have to hold their hand and walk them through it. And it’s gotten to the point where industry expects certain hard skills and they expect the students to have them upon graduation. They have to be job ready with them because employers are telling us that we’re not gonna teach these to the people that we hire, we expect you to do that for us. Then it’s the soft skills that everyone has in varying degrees because they’re born with it, but they have them in varying degrees that they need to excel at those hard skills.

So back to your question, what are some of the hard skills associated with this field before I answer it in detail, what employers are telling us over a period of time is, this field has gone from tactical, right stuff at the right place at the right time and the right quantities at the right price. That was my first job at General Motors, super tactical. Now technology does that. My first job at GM doesn’t exist anymore cause technology does all of that for you. So over a period of time, it’s gone from tactical skill sets to more strategic. And by that, I mean, you’re making decisions that not only impact us today, but they’ll impact us tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. So employers have come back and told us, this is what they want from a supply chain professional. They want someone actually majoring in this thing called supply chain management. So most of our students are business majors. They take the same business classes that any other business major would take. And then they venture off into their major coursework. So employers have told us, we basically want a Jack of all trades and you don’t have to be an expert in anything too specific. And I’m like, well, what the heck does that mean? You want them to be really good at a bunch of different things, but they don’t have to be great at any one specific thing.

So, people think that, oh, if I major in supply chain management, I have to go into this niche specialized, concentrated area. It’s actually just the opposite. If you ask me what’s the most well-rounded education that a person could get, where could a person develop a strong general business acumen? I would argue that it’s in supply chain management, cause we’ve created a curriculum that basically says we’re gonna set you up so that you can do a bunch of things well, but you won’t be an expert in any one thing. So what does that mean? Employers have told us we want your students to be data scientists. They have to be able to make sense out of very, very large amounts of data. Tell a story, visualize it, and then sell it to management. Okay. Data science. We want your students to be lawyers to understand the legal issues associated with contracts and purchase orders between buyers and suppliers. We want your students to be engineers so they can interact with suppliers and your own engineers at your own company on technical issues. We want them to be able to negotiate, which I originally thought was a soft skill, but apparently you can teach people to be better negotiators. We want your students to be good problem solvers. I thought that was a soft skill, but apparently you can teach people to basically be better problem solvers. Other stuff, lean, finance. Now we have employers telling us that we want your students to have finance skills so that if they have to, they can talk to the CFO. It’s like, what, when did that happen? You expect someone that’s not majoring in finance or accounting to be able to talk to a CFO because a CFO is going to the supply chain organization on a daily basis asking for example, how can we improve our bottom line financial indicators? So I think a lot of the hard skills are some of those things that I just mentioned.

Some of the things that have happened rather recently is now we have very specific industries saying they want us to teach to their industry. So you look at the food and consumer products industry, like Kelloggs and Cargill, McDonald’s Hey, we’ll hire your students. Could you customize the supply chain education to our students? So that’s been a little problematic for us because the companies that in the past have hired most of our students, they design and built things. They’re not the only ones that spend money and buy things from suppliers. So those companies said, we want your students to take engineering classes, quality assurance, CAD, manufacturing techniques, things like that, blueprint reading, but then Kelloggs and Cargill, McDonald’s come along and say, well, we don’t care if they can read a blueprint, they don’t need to know CAD.

So the struggle for us has been, keep giving employers all these things that they want. And then industries come in and say, look, we hire 10 students a year. We graduate a hundred students a year. We don’t need them to take these classes. We need them to take these classes. So the other thing that’s come along too, is most Americans don’t work for companies that build stuff. Over 90% of America’s workforce works in the service sector, all of their spend isn’t indirect. Okay. So you have manufacturing companies where 70 cents for every sales dollar is on the direct material purchases side. What about all those companies that spend lots of money buying stuff? They have suppliers, all of their spend is indirect. So now we have companies that say, look, we don’t build anything, but we spend a lot of money. We call it indirect. So now we have to take a procurement class and customize it for the students that go on to work for companies that don’t actually build anything. So the answer to your question is the hard skills are plentiful and many. The good news is. They don’t have to be like really, really great at any one of them. They just have to be pretty darn good at all of ’em. 

So you asked about the soft skills. I’m gonna just rattle off a list of what I think some of the soft skills are and they don’t change over time. And I think these are the things that we’re all born with, that we can get better at. And when we get better at it, allows us to do those hard skills better. So obviously communication, written and oral. Don’t take that for granted. Last year I had students that finished high school online and started college online. Imagine how good their communication skills were having finished high school and started college online. A lot of work to be done there, enormous consequences associated with what we went through the last two years and not meeting face to face. So it’s actually problematic. I have to coach students on writing an email message that it’s not a text. You don’t use acronyms that I don’t even understand because I’m too old to understand what the heck they’re talking about, or when you meet someone, don’t start the email message hey, or don’t call me dude or bro, I’m a professor. So we’re coaching, we’re mentoring, we’re doing all that stuff and we’re playing catch up a little bit on some of these soft skills that you’ve asked about. 

Logically organize your thoughts. That assumes first that you know what you’re talking about. Cause if you don’t know what you’re talking about, how you logically organize those thoughts. A part of it is just getting them to talk supply chain management correctly, facilitate team-based decisions, time management, of course. I talk to my former students regularly and I get on these conference calls with them and I ask ’em, could you send me a screenshot of your schedule today? And it’s a bunch of Zoom and MS Teams meetings throughout the day, spread out over 12 hours and I’ll look at it and I’ll say, wait a second, you have all these meetings that overlap. What do you do? And they’ll be honest with me. Well, I leave that meeting early, or I go to that meeting late. 

I get this question asked all the time, what’s wrong with the supply chain like lately. Supply chain is actually doing pretty well. It’s saving the day and most of our inflationary pressure isn’t actually coming from the supply chain, especially of late. I have this theory and I don’t have data to back this up. I think one of the issues in the supply chain is I think a lot of people out there are making a lot of mistakes. If you look at the two major forms of technology being used out there in supply chain management in 2022, it’s still email and giant color coded spreadsheets. So back to this soft skill of time management, I’m looking at these screenshots, my former students, and they’ve got these 12-hour days where meetings overlap with each other. And they’re trying to make sense out of color-coded spreadsheets instead of using cloud based technology that can do it in five seconds by pointing and clicking, but they don’t answer to leadership that invests in those technologies that are actually cheap in the overall scheme of things. 

I’ll ask them questions like how’s your email inbox look. And I had one student tell me, yeah, I have 3000 that I need to get to. And that’s not junk mail. Don’t tell me between those conference calls and those email messages and those giant spreadsheets they’re manually driven, that there aren’t mistakes being made out there that are causing disruptions in the supply chain. Personally, I think just a ton of stuff is being overlooked. There’s a lot of miscommunication that has something to do with not managing your time very well, but you know, who wants to work 90 hours a week as well. So, I think time management is huge. 

Another soft skill, leadership. We actually have leadership courses now. You can minor in leadership. We have a leadership major, but you have to double major if you major in leadership, you can’t just major in leadership and say, hire me because I major in leadership. It has to compliment something that you’re actually majoring in and that’s been rather recent. So I think that’s kind of cool that we’ve got some of these things that I used to think of as soft skills, that are kind of hard skills because we can actually teach ’em in the classroom. They can learn it, they can get better at it. They can practice it. It took me forever to realize, yeah, the military can teach leadership. Why couldn’t a business college as we send people off into industry. For the longest time, and I used to be a lean guy, problem solving and negotiation. I thought, okay, these are soft skills. They’ll learn ’em as they go. Nope, negotiation’s a class now. Problem solving’s a class now. And big surprise, they go into the workforce. They’re better problem solvers and they’re better negotiators. And I used to think, okay, those are a blend of soft skills and hard skills. Maybe that’s the point here is that all this stuff is so blended that we can’t put ’em into two different buckets.

Other soft skills that I’m picking up on, customer service stuff. We lost sight of pre COVID, how important it is to be able to talk to anyone as though they were your customer. So, I think that’s a soft skill that we’re trying to work on as well.

Just simply the desire to learn, I think is a soft skill. I’ve noticed with a lot of my former students, my rock stars that were ambitious and driven, and they were learners. They start chasing the dollar signs, especially straight outta school, and they end up at a corporate dinosaur and then a few years into it they’re too scared to make a change. And then I have coffee with them and it’s almost like someone punched them in the gut. They stopped being learners. So I think we have to figure out a way to make sure that they have this desire to continuously and always learn, and that when they’re in a situation where they realize they’re not learning anymore, they gotta get themselves out of that, cause that stuff is toxic. 

If I had to wrap it all up. If a student asked me, what soft skills do I need to become someone at your company, where you’re almost like a consultant to your employer. So if your manager says, you know what, you’re so good at what you do, that you’re better than the best consultant we’ve ever hired. And I think your soft skills are very strong. So what I’m trying to get at is if you become a consultant to your organization, what that probably implies is that you have all of these soft skills, you play nice in the sandbox box. You get along well with others. You know how to talk to people at the lowest levels of the organization, the middle and the top. You know how to make sense out of data, communicate it to people that don’t understand Excel in very sophisticated ways. So I tell my students, the goal here is while you’re in school, we’re gonna teach you these hard skills. We’re gonna hold your hand, walk you through it. Cause there’s no way you’re gonna learn data science online on YouTube. You could, it’s possible, but the data shows it doesn’t work out very well. So we’ll walk you through the hard skills. We’ll hold your hand. We’re gonna work on your soft skills, but that’s gonna be mostly on you. You’re gonna recognize very quickly what you need to improve on. And then don’t make the same mistake twice, become a learner. 

And I think going through this process where projects and teaching are more hands-on experiential with employers, with projects on site, students see the value of work experiences. They’re not graduating in four years. I had a conference call with a student from a very high-profile company, 34 years old. I thought I was talking to someone that was 50. He’s a future VP of supply chain management. He took his time to graduate. It took him six years to get his undergraduate degree cause he had three different work experiences, all degree related. And when he hit the workforce, he was basically 25 going on 35 and you can see it when he is talking. He doesn’t talk like a guy in his thirties, and that’s why he is advanced so quickly. 

[00:18:21] Rodney Apple: There’s so much that goes into being successful in this broad area of supply chain. It’s a long list and it seems to be evolving over the years. Supply chain touches really every aspect of a business that’s internally, and then you think about externally to your suppliers, all the way through to your customers. And you’ve gotta understand the basic finance. You’ve gotta understand customer service. You’ve gotta understand the analytics and you’ve gotta be able to deal with all these people influencing change, collaborating. That was a very good answer. And I think that shows the depth and breadth of what you need to be successful. So, I appreciate that, the thoroughness in that answer. 

[00:18:57] Mike Ogle: Absolutely. One of the things I wanted to dive a little deeper into, you had mentioned some conversations with some recent grads and some experiences that they’re having. Like to dive a little deeper into what you’re hearing about their transition into industry and any feedback that they’ve been giving you about things they wished they had learned in school once they got there, how that transition into industry takes place and things then that they wish they’d done differently.

[00:19:25] Sime Curkovic: The biggest trend I’ve seen so far, especially from the larger companies, is job rotations. So we’re gonna hire you on full-time. And during the next three years, you’re gonna have three different job assignments. Or for the next two years, you’re gonna have four different job assignments. So these are full-time roles, and we’re gonna put you into ’em. You might be able to pick a couple of ’em, but we’ll pick a couple for you. So, I think that’s been huge, cuz it gives you this cross-functional exposure. It exposes you to high levels of management in a short amount of time so that you can network and find mentors. Initially, I thought I wasn’t gonna be a huge fan of this whole job rotation thing, because my thought was if you graduate and you’re job ready, and you have previous work experience, why not just get started with a job and then you get promoted like two or three years later and you start advancing and climbing up the corporate ladder. The feedback that I’m getting from former students is these job rotations have been amazing experiences and basically three years into a career, two years into a career, they have tons of work experience. That’s CR very cross functional in nature that they otherwise wouldn’t have. So, I’ve actually, these job rotations, have grown on me where it’s worked out very well for my former students.

And then I have students that start their careers off in these to small to medium size firms. And they’re in essence in these glorified job rotations. Cause when you work for a smaller company, you have to wear many different hats and work with different parts of the organization because you’re at a smaller company, right? So it’s almost like the larger companies have used the smaller company model in essence, created a work experience for my students straight out of school that mirrors what my students get when they hire on with a smaller company. You get to wear many different hats in a short amount of time to get good at a bunch of different things. Get cross-functional exposure so that when you do make decisions down the road, you’re taken into accounts, different parts of the organization.

So that’s been huge. If you asked me the question in reverse, what feedback have I gotten, where students have made bad decisions? I have a lot of students that get all of their work experience in procurement per se, when they’re in school. They hire on into purchasing. They stay in purchasing, they get promoted, they become a commodity manager. Maybe they become an executive director. My point is my students that haven’t done as well as they would’ve liked. And I use that term loosely, not as well as they would’ve liked. If they don’t get the cross-functional work experience and all they do is spend money and buy stuff and work with suppliers. At some point, you’re gonna hit a ceiling professionally, right. But at the same time, what’s wrong with hitting a ceiling professionally. If you’re really good at something. You’re rewarded for it. And you could find another job the next day, because demand exceeds supply. There’s nothing wrong with being really good at buying stuff. As a commodity manager. If you lost your job today or walked away, you could find a new job tomorrow. Just like being a truck driver. Right. I can. Quit today and I’ll have something today next week, whenever I wanna go back to work. But at the same time, the rewards aren’t as plentiful, so they hit a ceiling professionally. 

Likewise, with my students that love operations management. So they get operations experience in college. They go on and eventually they become a senior ops manager and they hit a ceiling professionally. So my recommendation is, take advantage of those job rotations. You get cross-functional work experience very early on in your career than in the past students weren’t able to get. And during your career, try not to get stuck and siloed into one part of the company. And get cross-functional work experience so that professionally you don’t hit a ceiling. 

 And then as far as dissatisfaction regrets, I have people that tell me, they wish they would’ve paid attention more to the things that have nothing to do with money. So a lot of my students, they took jobs with the company that paid the most, then they realized they were in jobs where they weren’t being challenged, that they weren’t learning as much. They were sitting in a cubicle, they were buying the same thing over and over again. They wished that they would’ve paid more attention to what would my roles and responsibilities be during the first three to five years of my career. So something I’ve noticed is I’ve got some students that took jobs for less money, but the resumes look better, three to five years into their career. The students that took jobs for more money, the resumes aren’t as impressive, because imagine if they’re just buying hot roll coil steel all day, even if the spend is half a billion dollars, you’re buying it from two suppliers. How much learning is gonna go on there over a three-year time period versus a student that took a job for 10, 15 grand less at a smaller company where he or she is their supply chain management organization. The other feedback that I’m getting is my former students, they won’t leave their jobs for more money, unless it’s a lot more money. I was a little surprised by that, like 10, 20%. Now if they like what they do, they like their boss, they like the culture. I’m not walking away for 10, 20%. I’m surprised by that. But when you start talking about 30, 40%, they start to roll the dice a little more. So I’m like, okay, so that’s the magic number.

So we have a local company here that knows it has to pay people 30, 40% more to even get them to consider the opportunity. I’m a little surprised by this. I also like why’d you leave your job when I find out they left. Your relationship with your boss really matters. If you love your boss and you gravitate towards them and you sense that they put you ahead of themselves, it’s fun to go to work. If you sense that they’re selfish and they don’t care about you, apparently that’s a reason to leave work. So I’m picking up on all sorts of reasons of why my students are happy, why they’re not happy, why they walk away, that sort of thing. So it was some of the things that I’ve picked up on in terms of why they leave, why they stay.

[00:24:55] Rodney Apple: What you’re hearing, I can easily validate. Those are some of the same reasons when we are dealing with candidates, why are they leaving or what motivates them, for another opportunity. And it oftentimes does come down to the person they work for. And I would say in parallel, it’s the culture, it’s the values. And I do feel people, especially early on in their career, they do chase the dollars. Who’s got the highest offer. You hear the term money can’t buy happiness. To an extent that’s probably true. But in your working profession, it’s extremely true. You can be paid top dollar, but if you don’t like your boss or you’re being overworked, you don’t have the right balance. You don’t adhere to the values, you’re gonna be miserable. And I’ve seen it time and time again. You’re not being challenged. That’s like death for supply chain professionals. I’d say 90 some percent of people do not thrive in that environment. I think those that are just looking for a paycheck or a job may, but if they’re looking for a career and a place to grow, that’s the opposite environment.

[00:25:54] Sime Curkovic: Yeah. The auto industry had that reputation. I use auto as an example of where the margins are so thin and they have to protect ’em and then during recessionary time periods, you have to cut costs to maintain them or not let ’em shrink as much. So for a lot of my students, they thrive and love that environment. But what I try to tell them is there are companies in other industries that pay premium and seek out people that have worked in the auto industry for a period of time, so they can tap into those skill sets and what they’ve learned and the ability to manage thin and tight margins and the skill sets to help widen them.

So that’s been interesting for me is to see how other companies in other industries place such a premium on those skill sets. And that’s why I tell my students that say, man, I don’t wanna be there in that grind for 10, 20, 30 years. I tell ’em you’re majoring in something where everyone needs you. You can walk away when you want. Walk away when you feel like you’ve learned what’s to be learned or when it starts to feel like a grind, and you need a different atmosphere. So that’s starting to happen too, is where I’ve got students that’ll go into the job rotations in the auto industry. Put in another three to five years, and then the opportunities are endless out there where people wanna tap into those skill sets that they learned. And I think it’s a great place to learn, but you have to be wired for it long term.   


[BREAK at 27:02]

[00:27:26] Rodney Apple: I’d love to hear your perspective on mentorship and any other kind of bigger career development things that people entering into the workforce should take a hard look at. 

[00:27:35] Sime Curkovic: Yeah. That word mentor and mentorship. Gosh, I haven’t used the word mentor in a very, very long time. Now I’m starting to think about why is that. That’s a big word. It’s a big buzzword. It’s important. For me personally, I’ve never put tons of stock in the importance of finding, seeking out and having a mentor per se. So if you asked me, did I have a mentor? I would probably say no, not really, but I’ve been influenced by a number of different people in very different ways. I might actually have a problem with the concept of having a mentor because a part of me feels like you’re putting all of your eggs in one basket. For example, if you ask my students, like how many times has Shema talked about finding a mentor and seeking out mentorship. They might tell you, I never heard him use that word, but a word I use in every class is networking.

If you asked me, what are my students really, really bad at? What are my students probably seizing the least amount of in terms of opportunity. It’s networking. Every day they come into our business college they have an opportunity to network, develop their network, broaden their network and turn their network into thousands of people by the time that they graduate and all they have to do is make a small effort.

For me, it’s less about mentors and mentorship, and it’s more about networking, the importance of building relationships with people and doing so and sustaining it over a very long period of time. If you ask me professionally. Where have I done most of my learning and where have most of my opportunities come from? It’s from my network and networking. That’s probably a thing where I think they are not taking as seriously as they should. It takes a little bit of effort, but they don’t understand what the ROI is. They can’t see the big picture of how valuable it is to graduate with a network of 1000 legitimate people versus less than 100. So I’ll have students that are in the business college and they have a two hour gap in their schedule and will come into my office and I start to pick up on, wait a second, they’re gonna spend two hours in my office with me. And I’m like, I don’t wanna sit down with anyone for two hours. Right. But what I try to tell them is why would you sit down with me for two hours? We already know each other. You’re in class with me. Or how about you sit down with me for half an hour and then go find these other three professors in your major and broaden and build up your network, go meet three faculty that you’re not gonna have in any other classes. But they’re in the business world. They teach these other classes. They’re in marketing, they’re in finance. And these people can influence you and impact your career. So, I tell my students, meet all of your faculty, get to know them to the point when the professors see you, they know you by first name.

Now, as far as graduating and beyond building up that network in a positive way. What I try to tell my students is, cause I get these emails and LinkedIn messages all the time. Would you recommend this certification with this industry association? Would you recommend a graduate degree? What would you recommend a graduate degree in? What I try to tell my students is there’s a ton of data out there that says if you go on and you keep learning, you’ll be successful. And if you do these things, the data indicates that if you can validate and externally validate that you’re a subject matter expert in the field that you work in. Yeah. You’re gonna have more job security. You’re gonna have more advancement opportunities, which means you’re gonna make more money, et cetera, et cetera.

I try to tell my students once you start with the company, even during the interviewing process, look at the culture, the values, the fit. Can you get excited about the culture of that company when you’re interviewing with the person that’s gonna be responsible for your career, for your success, when you start with that company, is there a connection? So look at their leadership style. Do you gravitate towards them? So a lot of my students tell me that I would’ve never even considered like culture, fit, values. I tell ’em on top of that. How about the person you’re be reporting to and talking to every day that has an impact on your success. And even never thought I should probably get along with that person and like them and have stuff in common with them. So I tell my students when you’re interviewing for a job, when you’re talking to your boss or your future boss, your supervisor ask, what would you describe as your leadership style and see if there’s a connection there with their response. In terms of professional success, what I tell my students is don’t just assume if you do this certification with this industry association and get this graduate degree, then all of a sudden that means advancement opportunities and job security and over a six-digit salary by the time you’re 30. Take a look at your boss’s bosses, what do they have on their resume? What did they do to become successful? Where do they work? What skill sets do they develop? I have students that work at companies that don’t place a premium on these certifications. They don’t place a premium on grad school and I’ve got students that that’re fine with that.

Look, I’m burnt out from school. I don’t want any more certifications. I’ve got my degree. I just wanna work hard. And I have a lot of students that school is a little bit of a struggle for ’em. They’re not studious, they’re not academic. There are companies out there that don’t place the premium on that stuff, but there are plenty that do. So I tell my students when you hire on with the company, pay attention to who you report to cause that’s where most of your job satisfaction will actually come from. In terms of being successful and climbing up the corporate ladder, just look at everyone’s resume above you in the org chart and look for stuff that overlaps. Is this a company that places a premium on things like Lean Six Sigma certification and yellow belts and green belts and black belts, does that appeal to you? Does a lean world and these certifications appeal to you.

At the same time. I’m surprised by this as an academic, that darn MBA, it still has a great ROI. I’m like it’s 2022, why does that thing still work? There’s tons of data that says, if you do this, if you take these 12 classes, which is no small feat, if you’re working full time, you have more job security, you have more advancement opportunities. There’s a time there where I thought at some point, this whole graduate education thing is gonna become overrated and it just hasn’t, it’s evolved. It’s become more specialized, it’s become more student friendly for working professionals. It’s become more current and leading edge. Like the technology side of it. CFOs have said, Hey, the most important person in supply chain organization is gonna report to me. So no big surprise. If you look at an MBA program now, they have a class in supply chain management finance, if you’re concentrating in supply chain. So we’ve evolved. And I think that’s a part of the great ROI, but don’t just do it for doing it. Pay attention to the brand, cause for graduate school, that matters a little bit, but I’ve always told my students go get a grad degree where you can learn stuff that you’re terrible at, that employers place a premium on.

And for a lot of my students, it tends to be data science because they didn’t take it seriously enough as an undergrad. Outside of that, it tends to be that accounting, finance stuff, and digitization of the supply chain. So I tell them, don’t go get a grad degree in something that you’re already good at, that you’ve taken as an undergrad. Go get out of your comfort zone. And Mike, back to your question of students that have been happy and successful. The ones that took risks for some reason are way more happy. They changed jobs, they moved, they changed industries. I’m starting to notice this theme of where my students that have hit a wall professionally, that aren’t as energetic as when I saw them at age 22. They’re the ones that were afraid to take a chance and create some changes in their life. I think the ability to take chances and risks on yourself, which is outside of our comfort zone, the ones that did, man, they just seem a lot happier and more successful than the ones that didn’t. But I’m gonna generalize here and say, if I collected data and can measure it, I would say it’s statistically conclusive that the ones that have started and finished at the same place, for some reason, there’s something missing there. And some of them actually admitted it to me that, yep, I’m not thrilled with going into work, but I’ve got a good situation here. I’m married. I have kids, I have bills to pay and this works for me now. I have some regrets, but not enough to be miserable. I just wish I would’ve done this when I had the opportunity at age 37.

[00:35:35] Mike Ogle: Yeah, all great points. And by the way, the MBA thing, I think you’d actually answered that partially yourself early on, when you talked about the breadth of experience and also the strategic versus the tactical, those two things together are almost like MBA centric. 

[00:35:53] Sime Curkovic: Good point. I think MBA programs have evolved over a period of time where industry is saying this is still worth the investment because you’re teaching the things that we value, right? If today’s MBA programs looked like what they looked like in the year 2000, then, then I think they would’ve slipped away and people wouldn’t be doing it. So, let’s give a little credit to the academics for listening to industry and giving them more of what they want. And the end result is that they’re very happy with the ROI, which is kind of the purpose of our existence is to make sure that they’re happy with that, right? 

[00:36:25] Mike Ogle: What changes have you seen in the way that students want to learn and how you think that they actually learn best today? 

[00:36:33] Sime Curkovic: Let me go back to an example that I used during COVID. Those students that finished high school online and started their college careers online. They would agree that that was a miserable, horrible experience and they didn’t learn as much as they could have or should have. I have a generation of supply chain students that took the majority of their coursework online cause it was in the heat of COVID, right? Yes. There were some skill sets that came along with that experience that are very valuable. There’s a skill set required to successfully work remotely. 

The rage and the trend has been experiential hands on projects, actual industry, hands on projects. Right? I’m fortunate that in Southwest Michigan, I live in a mid-size town. The metropolitan area is like 250,000 people. We’re the only university in town, so we’re the university. We have a relationship with a community of 250,000 people. And that community includes Fortune 500 companies, but the backbone of our community is small to medium size firms, family owned businesses. And we have probably, I’m gonna ballpark here close to a thousand manufacturing facilities within 60 miles of our university. So, I’m grateful and blessed that we have an amazing relationship with industry. Industry has come to us and said look, we need talent. We want talent. And so, they’re in there in the curriculum working with us. So the way the students want to learn is they don’t wanna be in the classroom all the time. They wanna be hands on. They want experiential projects, they want professional experiences. So we’re fortunate. I have colleagues, for example, in Metro Detroit, we’re probably talking close to 5 million people with a number of universities in that market and thousands of companies and facilities. It’s almost like it’s so big that people don’t even talk to each other.

So I would argue that we have stronger relationships in this mid-sized town at this mid-major university versus what Metro Detroit has with its universities and the community and industry. So what’s happened is young people and college students learn best face to face, hands on with experiential projects. That requires a lot of relationship building and networking and a community where that stuff is happening and working. And I think we bring that to the table. Here’s my concern is these students that finished high school online and started college online. We still have a lot of employers where they’re providing internships and full-time jobs that are still 100% online. I’ve got a local company here, a Fortune 500 company, internships are online. They’re remote. The onboarding for full-time jobs and they’re starting their careers online. The students deep down inside. They would agree this is toxic. I’m not developing professionally. I’m not developing the people skills and the emotional intelligence and the soft skills that I need to be developing.

But they’re in this rut and they’re starting to get used to it. They’re used to doing things online, learning online, doing internships online. Now you’ve got employers saying you’re gonna start your careers off online because essential services are the only ones at work. And most people in supply chain management, they support essential services, but they don’t have to be in the cubicle at work. So I see something very toxic going on that involves people in industry not moving outside of their comfort zone and getting back to work so they can interact with people face to face. The consequences is going to be with the people that we’re bringing into the workforce. So that’s my greatest concern right now. I had a student with an internship get fired on a Zoom conference call because he started vaping during the conference call with the supplier. He thought that was normal. I had another student where they had to go into the office one day during the week, and they said business casual and the student showed up in sweatpants, very nice sweatpants, but my student thought that that was business casual. So, the point I’m trying to make is they learn best when they’re interacting with people in the real world, in the real world. I’m fighting tooth and nail to make that happen. We’re pulling it off and I’m probably doing a better job than people in these larger communities cause they don’t have the relationships that we have in these smaller towns. But I need corporate America to say, look, we’re not gonna go back to normal, but things have to change.

So I think what the students want and what graduates want, and what’s in the best interest of corporate America in industry is hybrid work experiences. And if you asked me what the best jobs of the future will look like, I think it’ll be those jobs where you’re not sitting in a cubicle five days a week putting in 50 hours. It’ll be those jobs that are hybrid. And by having a job, that’s a hybrid, you’ll get people to be more engaged. I tell my students you’ll know that you’re in a good job and you’ll be happy when your personal life blends with your professional life and you love working your personal life. And you have no idea how many hours a week you work.

I’ve had a hybrid work model in my professional life since I started as an academic. That’s one of the reasons that I went into academia is I didn’t wanna sit in a cubicle 60 hours a week and be bored 15 hours of those 60. Right. So I went into academia primarily because I knew it had a hybrid work model. And I don’t know how many hours of work a week, 60, 70, 80. I have no idea cause I love it so much. And my professional life and personal life is intertwined. Some of my happiest students right now, aren’t the ones that are working on site all the time. They’re not the ones that are working remote all the time. It’s the ones that are in hybrid work experiences, where they go in two, three days, a week or four days a week. And they work from home the other day, or they can come and go as they please based on their work schedule, what needs to get done and their personal lives. So I think that’s what industry needs to embrace and what students and graduates really want deep down inside is they want to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week. They just don’t want it to feel like 70 hours a week. And the way you do that, Is give them a model that allows them to be successful and grow that allows them to intertwine their personal and professional lives. So I’m very optimistic moving forward about what happens after COVID. We just need more people in industry to embrace it and it’s starting to happen. The whole hybrid thing is kicking in cause they know that the alternative is actually gonna be dangerous to everyone.

[00:42:41] Rodney Apple: It’s interesting to see where this is going and, it’s been very much a candidate driven marketplace and obviously the pandemic drove a lot of these changes in the workforce and working from home I think it’s here to stay and I agree, obviously there’s roles where you need to be on site. We know if you’re in a factory, there’s not many of those jobs where you can do that from home. Same thing, distribution centers, and so forth, but, hybrid certainly allows flexibility and maximizing productivity and getting those personal things done. It’s really about balance at the end of the day and results. 

[00:43:12] Sime Curkovic: Yep. I agree. Hundred percent. I had a student tell me she has an internship. It’s 100% online. She’s very introverted. She’s amazing with data. The internship is 100% like data driven, like data analytics, data science stuff, great fit for her great fit for the company. But I also told her, look, I know you very well. You’re so introverted that you need to fix this a little bit. I’m not talking a lot. The best guest speakers, the best leaders. If you look at them, most of ’em are actually lean towards introvert. They’re great listeners. They’re compassionate. It’s not the extroverts that talk too much. So I told her you owe it to yourself to get on site, meet people. To get beyond how introverted you are. And maybe that’s once every two weeks, but if someone’s in the office, get in there. So it’s again, back to get outside of your comfort zone. And usually if you do, you’ll have no regrets.

[00:44:00] Rodney Apple: Sime, great perspectives today. We’d love to hear if there’s any career advice you’ve received that you’d like to share with our audience. And I know you’ve developed some things in terms of content on your own. So, what’s some of the best advice you’ve received, part B, where can we find some of the content that you put out?

[00:44:16] Sime Curkovic: The best advice I can give to anyone out there in general, like really generalize here is read as much as you possibly can. It really is true, knowledge is power and knowledge will come from reading, especially if you’re in supply chain management, because look at the last word of that three-letter acronym, its management. A very large percentage of what you need to know to be successful in management can be taught to you by reading. So, as I’m a firm believer in making time to read 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes a day of just reading. The best minds, some of the most successful and the happiest people in the world, what are they all have in common? They read a lot. And it’s people where you’re like, how could they possibly have time to read? That’s the reason that they are successful is because they make that time. Rule of thumb is that there’s just tons of data that proves this as well, people that read seven books a year versus one, the people that read seven, make two to three times more during their professional careers. And they’ve got a sample size where this is true. This is statistically conclusive. These are good research studies. So it’s not anecdotal. So read, read, read. Along those lines, you can go to my website, You can follow me on LinkedIn. You can email me. You can follow me. You can connect with me.

It’s all out there. My website is 25 bucks, for a lifetime. 90% of it’s free. I’m trying to build up an endowed scholarship fund. That’s what that money’s going towards. If you don’t want to put in your credit card for 25 bucks and you see something that you want access to just shoot me an email and I’ll get it to you. Basically, have a great full-time job, but a part of it is to provide and disseminate information to everyone out there. So I think LinkedIn email, my website, reach out anytime and I’m more than happy to connect and help. 

[00:46:04] Mike Ogle: Sime, thank you for a great conversation and your insights about supply chain careers.  

[00:46:10] Sime Curkovic: My pleasure as I started it off with, it’s a great day to be in supply chain management, and that’s like no exaggeration whatsoever.