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Supply Chain

How to Recruit Young Professionals to Your Supply Chain Roles

Jake Dean

Jake Dean

Director of the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jake Dean, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Well-known companies like Google, Amazon or 3M easily drum up interest for students entering the Supply Chain field, but it’s important young talent doesn’t overlook opportunities at lesser-known organizations. With the right recruiting tactics, all companies can attract talented students.  

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Jake Dean, Director of the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to discuss ways to appeal to young professionals entering the supply chain industry.

Jake draws from two decades of supply chain experience to offers insight on:

  • Tactics for recruiting young professionals
  • Mistakes to avoid with new candidates
  • How to structure an internship for new college talent

Quartz Network: Can you share some info on your background and current role?

Jake Dean: I’ve been working in Supply Chain for almost 20 years. I started out in retail and then I actually got my MBA here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 2000s. From there I moved into the tech Supply Chain network at Cisco for a number of years in Silicon Valley.

Now I’m coming upon five years in the director role of the Grainger Center at the University of Wisconsin, which is a lot of fun. We have three different programs in Supply Chain management, an undergraduate major, a one year graduate MS degree in Supply Chain and a two year full time MBA. So I work with a pretty wide cross section of students and it’s really fun to watch them grow and develop and launch them into the world. There’s great things that they’re going to go and do in this very impactful field. I do the strategy for those programs and I teach as well and work with a lot of employers. I also do a lot of career counseling. There’s a lot of different Supply Chain in my role from both an industry and academic side.

Quartz Network: What are current college students and young professionals looking for in prospective employers?

Jake Dean: There’s the obvious things, like, how much am I going to get paid? What hours? What does the role actually look like? But then there are a few second level things. Location is very important for a lot of our students.

One of the interesting things about Supply Chain is you’re not always working in that grand downtown office tower. Sometimes you’re out at a distribution facility, or in a factory that might not be a major population center. So that is certainly something that students are looking to do. A lot of our students are looking to move from Madison, Wisconsin to places like Chicago, or Milwaukee or the Twin Cities or somewhere like that. So location is important.

But what I find students really focusing on these days is whether they connect with what the company does and how they do it. What is the company’s vision? What is their mission? What do their ethics look like? What are their business practices? Are they in the news for good things? Are they in the news for bad things? Students are really keying into that stuff.

Now, for a large part, students come to business with a social mission. So your company should make sure that they are in tune with what students who are 22 are in tune with. Or in the case of grad students a little older than that. What’s important to those students from a fundamental perspective, because it’s something that students really talk about when they’re looking at companies that they’re going to work at.

Quartz Network: How do companies that are not well-known consumer brands get on students’ and young professional’s radars?

Jake Dean: I’m very familiar with Supply Chain. I don’t know if the same things happen in some of the other business disciplines, but I feel like there are a lot of great business to business companies that don’t have great name recognition. They’re not consumer brands that people are familiar with.

Just by their nature of being well known, our students do tend to flock to Google, Apple, Amazon, 3M or CPG companies. Companies that they can relate to their products. Those companies get the long lines at all the career fairs, and I don’t think people will find that surprising.

So it can be frustrating for companies who are a few steps back in the Supply Chain. Companies who are doing all sorts of great things and provide great opportunities for students. But students don’t know who they are. We have a lot of companies for whom that’s an issue.

So pre-COVID those companies spent a lot of time on our campus. They would come and speak in classes. They would host lunch and learns. They would provide potential cases we could use in our classes that would demonstrate the value of their products or the value of what they do. They would serve on our advisory boards. And when they would come, they wouldn’t expect to have a whole bunch of students coming to their events right off the bat. They know that they have to work and build up that presence and build up that name.

There are some good examples that we’ve had here at the University of WisconsinMadison from companies that the average person hasn’t heard of. They’ve gone on to be aspirational employers for students because they’ve spent time building up their name, building up their presence and sponsoring events.

We had a company this year who sponsored a virtual trivia night for our students, because that’s what we could do in COVID. But it was still important for companies to really spend time with students to explain their value, explain what they do, and that you can have a great Supply Chain career at a company that your friends haven’t heard of.

I have that conversation with students all the time. That this company may not be the fanciest company or may not be something that everybody’s heard of, but they’re doing some really great things in their Supply Chain. And the career that you could have there is probably going to be a lot more rewarding from a Supply Chain perspective, than going to certain tech companies where Supply Chain is not anywhere near the top of their list. But the name has some sort of cachet.

I’m certainly on the side of these companies to say that there are great opportunities out there. But I’m only one person. So it takes a lot of effort on the company side as well to publicize the value that they bring and the opportunities that they have. Even though they’re not a household name like a Google or an Amazon.

Quartz Network: What mistakes do companies commonly make in recruiting supply chain students and young professionals?

Jake Dean: For companies who are looking to get more established with campus recruiting, it starts really early. Career fairs are typically in September, and these are for positions that will start in May, June, sometimes even July.

The fall is when employers start coming in trying to get the best pick of students because they know everybody starts early, and that the good students are going to get offers potentially by the end of September. So the preparation probably starts in May and the company should already be thinking about what the recruiting strategy is for next year. I’ve seen companies come to the party a little late.

We talked earlier about what students value. So when employers are talking to students, emphasize not jus the job that you’ll do, but the impact you’re going to have on the company and society as a whole. Really focus on the impact of the work. That can be really meaningful to students.

Another thing that that is unfortunately unforeseen, is employers ghost students all the time. So students will apply for a job in September, October, November, December, January. And then they’ll get the automated email that says, thank you, and maybe the live interview. And then nothing. This happens fairly frequently, where students just don’t know if they’re in this weird limbo space. Many of our students are considering multiple offers. They’ve had an interaction, maybe even an interview with a company that they’re really interested in but they just can’t get a yes or no decision from that company.

So I would highly encourage employers with active campus recruiting to set deadlines for yourself. If you haven’t given a student a decision by a certain date, tell them that they should move on to something else, because you’re creating this potentially false sense of expectation with students.

Quartz Network: What is the best way to structure an internship?

Jake Dean: I find companies that are larger bring in a larger class of interns across functions and treat them as a cohesive body of employees or potential future employees. Students find those really valuable.

When I was an intern at Cisco a number of years ago, Cisco’s a gigantic company, I think there was 70,000 employees or something and a number of different business events. As an intern to try to figure out what’s going on in a company of that size is really hard. You barely figure out what your team does. So providing some programming that is specifically geared to everybody who’s in the same life stage, who’s there for three months in a summer and wanting to get a taste of what it’s like to work there. Give them some programming and some exposure to various people in the company and the company itself. Students really appreciate that because they feel like they are valued as interns and they feel like it’s a much better recruiting tool for an employer to be able to really give them as much of a snapshot of the company as they can.

Now, not every employer can do that. I don’t want to make it sound like if you can’t do that, don’t bother. But regardless of the whether you’re doing that or not, as far as the actual project work goes, make sure that that project is well is defined enough that the student who knows nothing about the company or the culture, or the people there, can get a meaningful start on it. And then set them up for success 10 or 12, or however many weeks later. Figure out what the project is, explain it well and document what the resources are for the intern or the student. And make sure the intern doesn’t start the week that the hiring manager is not in the office. That happens frequently.

Set the bones up for a really meaningful project for the student. It might be a meaningful project for the company, but it needs to be meaningful for the student. It needs to be able to show the company whether they want to hire the student. Providing those resources, providing an explanation of what’s going on and then checking in and setting the timeframe.

It doesn’t have to be the manager all the time. The manager can set up some time with other people on the team. It can be a great development opportunity for individual contributors on the team to be the pseudo manager, or a mentor or the buddy.

Many of us have been in a situation where the first couple of weeks of a job is bewildering. You’re in this new environment. You don’t know who does what. You don’t know what the culture is. You don’t know what the words are. But you have a path because you know, you’re going to be there for a while. Imagine you’re trying to figure all that out and produce work in two and a half months.

So the more ways you can provide the resources for students so that they can be successful or so that you can figure out if they’re going to be successful, the better off everybody will be. Internships are overall a fantastic experience if they’re done well for both employers and students. Employers get a much more accurate look than a few job interviews as to whether or not the student can actually perform. And the student gets a really nice inside look at the world of this company. What does it do? And how does it work once you peel back the outside? Whatever image they’re projecting to the world, to be able to see what it actually look like on the inside can be very good.

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