At the opening keynote session for the ProMat 2023 trade show, a panel of leading women in supply chain dove into a wide-ranging discussion of today’s top supply chain issues, including the changing role of technology, labor concerns, and diversity in the workplace.
The panel was assembled by MHI, the trade association that produces the biennial ProMat trade show, and the industry association AWESOME, which stands for “achieving women’s excellence in supply chain operations, management, and education.” Moderated by AWESOME CEO Michelle Dilley, the panel included women supply chain executives from companies such health care company McKesson, book publisher Penguin Random House, food company Grupo Bimbo, and toy company Hasbro.
Given ProMat’s focus on supply chain technology and automation, a good portion of the discussion focused on technology concerns. According to panelists, the pandemic not only accelerated investment in automation in the supply chain but also changed the conversation around the decision to automate.
“In the past [the ROI] was based on productivity, and now it’s productivity plus inventory plus speed to market, and it’s actually about we need these technologies to run our business,” said Annette Danek Akey, chief supply chain officer for Penguin Random House. “That’s a very different business case to be able to talk about and advocate for.”
A key driver of these technology and automation investments is the current labor shortage. According to the panelists, having the latest technology can be a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting employees.
“It’s now about investing in people, it’s about investing in the employees who are on the frontline and providing them with the right tools,” said Maria G. Llamas, senior director of fulfillment productivity and systems at Hasbro.
But as companies have invested in technology to address labor concerns, they have also been experiencing difficulties finding talent to manage and maintain that technology. “As we added automation, we learned the shortage of labor wasn’t just for frontline workers, the shortage of labor was also for those technicians, those automation engineers,” said Ammie McAsey, senior vice president of customer distribution experience at McKesson. “That is where we really had to start spending money.”
Addressing those talent gaps will take creativity, according to Danek Akey. “As leaders, we have to do the hard work of looking for talent,” she said. “In many cases, I truly believe that it’s there inside our own organizations, we just need to develop it.”
Part of being creative, according to Danek Akey, may involve reaching out to women. For example, many women left the workforce during the pandemic to help care for family members; could some of these women be brought back to work on a short-term project basis?
To attract more women into senior leadership positions in supply chain, it’s important to prioritize flexible work schedules, mentorships, and networking opportunities, said Rachel Cox, director of supply chain strategy for Grupo Bimbo. “It can be intimidating for young females who want to break into a male-dominated industry,” she said. “It’s important to have a warm and welcoming environment.”
McAsey recommended that everyone should see it as their responsibility to not just grow their own career but also help those coming after them. “As you come to the next door in your career, don’t just walk through it, bring someone along with you,” she said. “Whether that person is male or female, I don’t care. The fact is there is just not enough supply chain professionals right now.”