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The warehouse as classroom: New supply chain academies target entry-level employees

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Western Michigan University programs will teach unemployed area residents warehousing and inventory control skills while providing management and supervisory opportunities for the university's undergraduates.

At first blush, getting a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Kalamazoo, Michigan, up and running within a specified time frame may sound like a fairly typical supply chain project. But here's the twist: This warehouse is being designed as a "living laboratory."

The warehouse, which is a joint venture between the Integrated Supply Management (ISM) program at Western Michigan University (WMU) and the nonprofit employment-skills organization Urban Alliance, will house two supply chain "academies"—one focused on warehousing and the other on inventory control. The academies will teach unemployed and underemployed residents from the Kalamazoo area the skills they need to work for local warehousing and logistics companies. Simultaneously it will provide WMU students with an opportunity to learn how to manage and work with an entry-level workforce.

The program is based on Urban Alliance's Momentum employment program, which provides job training to individuals 18 and older who have significant barriers to employment, according to Program Director Brian Parsons. The six-week Momentum program focuses on employability and life skills. At the end of the program, participants can enroll in various academies that focus on a specific trade or profession, such as the culinary arts, manufacturing, or advanced technology.

The WMU-affiliated academies, set to open in October, are the first ones to focus on warehousing. They will provide a general introduction to supply chain management with an emphasis on warehousing-related activities such as shipping, receiving, putaway, picking, and replenishment, according to Ken Jones, director of education and applied solutions for the WMU Center for Integrated Supply Management. The classes will cover the technology and material handling equipment used in warehouses as well as "soft" skills such as communications and basic reading and math. The majority of the students' time, however, will consist of hands-on practicums out in the warehouse itself.

"Part of our intention is to get people certified in material handling, get them out on forklifts, running through practicums, and making sure they have proficiency in dealing with the different types of racking systems," Jones said in an interview.

Industry professionals will teach the classes, with assistance from students from Western Michigan's ISM program. According to Joe Brown, Urban Alliance's volunteer coordinator, there has been a great deal of interest in the program from the undergraduates—and not just because they desire to improve the greater social good. "This is going to be an educational experience that they will get nowhere else," Brown said in an interview. "They are going to work with a demographic that they may not have ever experienced before and [will] better understand the barriers and challenges that exist [for them]."

According to Urban Alliance, graduates of the supply chain academies will possess skills that are in great demand by local companies. The nonprofit recently conducted an analysis of job opportunities in the local region and found that warehousing and inventory-control skills were the top two biggest needs for companies in the area. And it's not just a local problem, Urban Alliance found. "We actually have a vice president for shipping and logistics at a company down in Illinois who sits on our board, and he told us, 'The first 20 you get trained, I'll drive a bus up there and pick them up myself,'" Brown recounted.

The WMU-Urban Alliance collaboration's long-term dream is to expand the warehouse space, which was donated by Lewis C. Howard Inc., a Kalamazoo-based logistics and warehousing company, to 75,000 square feet and create a working business, tentatively called UAccelerate Logistics. Select Urban Alliance Momentum graduates would work at the company, while WMU's ISM students could gain supervisory experience in an actual employment setting. This would allow the program to be self-sustaining and not have to rely on outside grants or funding.

But for the moment, Jones, Parsons, and Brown are, by the own words, running on adrenaline with only two months left in a unique sort of back-to-school effort. They are working flat out, not only developing a new curriculum and recruiting students, but also scrambling to install racks, find forklifts, and procure shrink wrap—everything you might need for a functional warehouse.

Editor's note: If you're involved with an innovative supply chain workforce-development program and would be willing to be interviewed about your efforts, please contact Senior Editor Susan Lacefield at slacefield@supplychainquarterly.com.

Susan Lacefield is Senior Editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly.

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