Whether it’s a shortage of car parts, lumber, hand sanitizer or toilet paper, supply chain problems for consumer products have been on many Americans’ minds throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Soon, some students at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown will be putting their minds together in an effort to resolve these problems.
The college announced a new 62-credit “Distribution and Supply Management” degree certificate program Wednesday, in partnership with Hill & Markes, an Amsterdam-based wholesale distributor.
“We’ve all been faced with shortages of toilet paper, although we have some,” Hill & Markes CEO Jason Packer said wryly, as he gave a speech Wednesday introducing the new supply-chain focused program.
The new academic path at FMCC will include a 180-hour internship program at the Amsterdam-based company and its distribution center in Montgomery County’s Florida Business Park on Route 5S.
“We’ve all seen how quickly the supply chain can be compromised and, without qualified people coming into our industry, we will continue to struggle,” Packer said. “Those working the supply chain have not received the credit they deserve until the last couple of years through this pandemic.”
Packer said Hill & Markes has been in business for 115 years as a wholesale distributor of janitorial supplies, food service supplies, disposable industrial packaging, and office supplies to companies throughout the state. He said his company does about 80% of its business with about 10 companies, but the other 20% is with more than 200 suppliers, many of whom have faced supply chain problems since the start of the pandemic.
Price Chopper Spokeswoman Mona Golub said her company has dealt with supply issues this year by having very experienced “buyers” within the company who know how to pivot from one supplier to another whenever there is a shortage in the more than 200,000 products Price Chopper sells retail over the course of the year.
She says in a typical holiday season there might be a few dozen supply chain “conversations” going on that relate to shorter than expected supply, but this year that number is closer to 100 such problems, that are creating an “irregular flow,” but those problems have not been insurmountable.
“There’s nothing that we’re totally out of, or not going to have,” Golub said. “There’s a lot more monitoring that’s going on by our merchandising team that are our product experts. Expertise and knowing what to do and having multiple suppliers and resourcefulness, in terms of figuring out how best to backfill needs to meet customer needs — that’s what our product managers are managing right now.”
The CEO pointed out that even though those problems may start with the manufacturers they quickly spread downstream to companies like his as they perform their part of the larger chain of supplying goods to the American public.
“Once we bring those products in, we then have to store them and then ship them out,” he said. “So, for us, the supply chain doesn’t end once we bring them in. We then have to bring them to our customers via truck. And you know, there’s a logistics operation in our warehouse and through our trucking system … we use a software called Roadnet that allows us to efficiently route the trucks to the right place at the right time.”
Hill & Markes deploys 29 of what it calls “power-units,” which are either tractor trailers or street trucks, along with about 12 to 15 trucks delivering wholesale goods throughout the state on a daily basis.
“Through this FMCC partnership program students will learn best practices in inventory control, logistics and technology, which are critical skills in today’s ever changing marketplace,” he said. “I’m grateful for FMCC’s visionary approach to public-private partnerships.”
Packer said his family has a strong connection to FMCC, his father, the chairman of Hill & Markes, is a graduate of the school. He believes its a smart business move to begin promoting supply-chain education both to his existing workers, who are offered an FMCC tuition assistance program, and to potential future employees.
“We believe that the more educated people either come into our organization or get educated from this program, from within our organization, the better we become as an organization,” Packer said. “Because the supply chain is a very complex system that I think everybody in the country is starting to recognize, and there are no easy ways of managing it other than getting really good at understanding it and managing through it and adjusting and being flexible. And so the more, the more we can bring people in from FMCC with that knowledge base and that kind of bigger picture understanding of what our supply chain is, the better they’ll fit into our organization.”
Daniel Fogarty, FMCC’s Director of Workforce Development and External Partnerships, said he hopes the college’s distribution and supply management partnership with Hill & Markes will serve as a model for the college to build degree program partnerships with other distribution centers.
“And if there’s a business in a different industry that wants to create these short-term trainings for adult-learners to get a job, we’re happy to train that too,” Fogarty said. “Hill & Markes, for this, approached us, and we’re hoping some of their entry-level employees are going to want to up-skill themselves, and they want that too, because they want to retain their current employees and build them up.”
Fogarty said Hill & Markes has not provided funding for the creation of the new degree program, which takes existing FMCC classes in computer science and business, and combines them with real-world supply chain experience at Hill & Markes.
“The biggest help they’re giving us is we get to use their facility to help train our students, which we would never be able to have the type of equipment they have,” he said.
LEARNING HOW TO OVERCOME SUPPLY CHAIN SHORTAGES
Charlene Dybas, an assistant business professor and vice president of collaborative career learning at FMCC, will act as the “advisor” for the supply chain individual studies degree at FMCC. She said she hopes to get about five to 10 students to take the program in its first year, but the program could expand, if more students are interested. They could be either full-time or part-time students.
“The unique part of these programs is that 50% of the learning is done hands-on at the site,” she said. “For the one-year certificate [version of the program], our students will spend two semesters doing 180-hours of hands-on-learning, where they’ll learn things like logistics, transportation, traffic management, and then they’ll go on to the second semester where they’ll learn things like warehousing, distribution, management and so-on. In the two-year degree [version of the program], they’ll do this four times, providing a unique opportunity to be right there learning their skills. In addition to that, they’ll still be here on campus taking courses to support that effort.”
Packer explained the specific skills he hopes students will take away from the program.
“I think when you better understand the flow of products, so, for example classes in purchasing — when you understand what it means to have just-in-time inventory, and how to plan your purchases in order so that your inventory is not too much and not too little, but ‘just right,’ that kind of like analytical understanding, that kind of understanding of spreadsheet work and how to really plan a warehouse that is really valuable today for an employer like Hill & Markes, to understand technology,” Packer said.
He also said understanding supply chain technology and artificial intelligence will be among the critical skills workers must develop to succeed in product distribution and help solve supply chain problems — locally and nationwide.
“When you used to do purchasing or inventory control, it was through technology, but it was oftentimes very manual,” he said. “I think moving forward, you really see a large reliance on artificial intelligence and kind of really understanding that, you know,” Packer said, “the computer the technology is going to kind of steer you, but you still have to steer that technology and you have to work with that technology. You have to have that kind of background in order to be successful at a company like our company.
“Understanding the flow of a warehouse, like ‘what is a warehouse management system?’ and having that understanding of how those systems work and operate. How does a routing system work and operate? Having that kind of background knowledge, coming into a distribution center will put those people head-over-heels in front of other candidates who want to work for our organization.”