Ilitch School corporate mentor expounds on her career in supply chain

EDITORS NOTE: This story originally appeared on IndustryWeek. The author, Terry Onica, is a mentor in the Mike Ilitch School of Business Corporate Mentor Program.

Despite the allure of working at the forefront of the latest and greatest technologies, there is a well-known skills gap facing the manufacturing industry.  This represents a huge opportunity for workforce entrants and those looking to advance their careers.  Especially for women.  In fact, women constitute one of U.S. manufacturing’s largest pools of untapped talent.  According to latest Women in Manufacturing Report from Deloitte, The Manufacturing Institute and APICS, gender diversity benefits a manufacturing firm through improved ability to innovate, higher return on equity (ROE), and increased profitability. And some manufacturers are placing significant efforts behind recruiting women.

I’m a testament to the fact that manufacturing can be a rewarding career path for women, both financially and personally. I’ve worked in the automotive supply chain for over 30 years. Before I joined my current company, QAD, I worked at a number of giant, successful manufacturing organizations like General Motors, Ford and Johnson Controls. My job as director of automotive takes me all over the world and exposes me to the very latest in manufacturing science, technology and strategy.

For me, it’s all about connecting the supply chain. Advanced technologies like machine learning, AI, Industrial IoT, robotic processing automation, data lakes, cybersecurity and more, are creating a totally new world in manufacturing. This new, modern world is all about connecting and analyzing data quickly to prevent and solve problems in manufacturing and the supply chain.  

Another big attraction is the opportunity to travel. Because manufacturing and the supply chain are so global, a manufacturing career can represent an opportunity to see the world, and to work in and understand different cultures. It definitely has for me. When I started at QAD, I had never traveled outside of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Today, I have traveled to 29 countries.

Ready for Liftoff

So for those considering starting or advancing a career in manufacturing, what is the best way to get started? One smart way to start is to get a supply chain degree.  There are several universities like Michigan State, Arizona State, Clayton University in Georgia and Wayne State among others that offer this specialized degree.

Not pursuing a degree? A ground-up approach to consider is taking any opportunity to work at a manufacturing facility in order to gain an understanding of plant or materials management. Having a few years of on-the-job training or an apprenticeship is a huge asset to a career that includes figuring out how to prevent and resolve manufacturing issues.

There are many automotive suppliers looking to hire at their facilities, and it makes it a great way to get in on the ground floor to learn.

Another alternative is to start in an IT department within the supply chain. By taking on a role where you help to support global manufacturing facilities, you will have a great view on how to apply advanced technologies to business challenges, which is a tremendous value to an organization. I started my career by supporting Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) between my company’s manufacturing facilities and our suppliers.

The Golden Ticket

Once someone has started down the path, finding a mentor is key to truly understanding the business side of the industry, and how the constant drive to deliver improvements in quality, cost and delivery impacts every aspect of the business. I serve as a mentor in Wayne State University’s corporate mentorship program, and one of my mentees, Elizabeth Cociuba, class of 2020, recently started an internship at Owens Corning. But she didn’t start out knowing she wanted to pursue a career in supply chain. In fact, she was having a difficult time declaring her major as a junior. By working with the mentorship program and actively seeking out insights from professionals in the supply chain, she decided the career was a fit for her from both a personality and opportunity perspective.

In fact, I hear from a lot of college students that the different leadership opportunities in supply chain and the chance to represent a company through constant global change are very appealing. At first, my mentee wasn’t sure she had enough experience in the field to secure her current internship. However, we reviewed her resume together and were able to see that in fact, her work at Tim Hortons as a shift manager wasn’t just serving coffee. She was already in the supply-chain business by getting coffee to the customer from inventory to product production to team leadership. She just needed a new perspective to see her experience under a different lens.   

Networking at industry events, maximizing social channels like LinkedIn to follow key industry issues, and following influencers in the space are very important also. Organizations like the Association for Supply Chain Management (APICS) put new recruits in the room with professionals and get them started talking to industry insiders. 

Perhaps the most important thing of all is to have “stick-to-it-iveness”--pursue an area of interest and stay there for at least three years. It takes time to understand how the process works. Remember, there is a job shortage in this sector—so the opportunities and career potential are there for the taking.

Terry Onica is director of automotive at cloud ERP software company QAD, and a former supervisor of supplier EDI at Johnson Controls.