Fort Smith area universities expand logistics, supply management courses

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 280 views 

A growing demand for logistics employees in the area pushed by growth at Fort Smith-based ArcBest and Van Buren-based USA Truck has prompted one local college to create a new degree program and another college to ramp up training in the field.

Arkansas Tech University-Ozark Campus will offer an associate of applied science degree in logistics management for the 2015/2016 school year and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will offer several courses in supply management related fields. 

The long-term job demand for logisticians in the state will increase to 30.2% by 2020, which exceeds the average national job growth in logistics of 22%, according to labor market information from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.

Logistics managers, or logisticians, analyze and coordinate an organization’s supply chain, the system that moves a product from supplier to consumer. The process involves not just moving goods from one point to another, but includes data analysis, efficiency, procurement, global supply chains, communication, transportation, computer skills and warehousing. The state median wage for a logistician was $34,750 in May 2012.

With divisions of 12 Fortune 500 manufacturers in the River Valley area and prime transportation avenues, including the Arkansas River, Interstates 40 and 49, and railways, the area has a high demand for skilled employees in the logistics field.

Bruce Sykes, ATU-Ozark Chancellor, said the new degree program was created after studying the state and national data and discussing the growth potential with local manufacturing and transportation employers. A community survey was also conducted and interest in the program was favorable.

“Our research into logistics started about two years ago,” he said. “We had specific conversations with local companies and it became apparent this was a growth industry. Local employers confirmed that.”

The associate of applied science degree was approved by the Board of Trustees in May 2015 and will go before the Department of Higher Education in July. Once the process is completed, the university will implement the curriculum they have created and plan to have new courses on the agenda by January 2016. Courses in supply chain management and similar fields that already exist will be available for students in the Fall semester and can be applied to the new degree.

Kerrie Taber, assistant professor and interim department head for the UAFS College of Applied Science and Technology, said many of their course offerings teach elements needed in logistics or logistics support.

“We are constantly looking at our offerings to make sure the students get a great education and can be better employees for area employers,” she said. “Students learn project management, leadership, planning and scheduling, shipping efficiency, methods and demands as well as many other skills.”

Graduates from an existing supply chain management four year degree program at the University of Arkansas are highly recruited, said Burton Weis, vice president of human resources for USA Truck.

“UA students in the logistics program are normally already hired before they graduate. It’s a competitive market,” he said.

The need for logistics experience and backgrounds is not likely to end soon. Operating income in USA Truck’s growing Strategic Capacity Solutions – a logistics and brokerage business – was $2.976 million in the quarter. That was down from $5.077 million in a 2014 first quarter that saw unusual winter weather change the shipping dynamic. However, the logistics and brokerage business is a sizable portion of USA Truck’s overall revenue. The SCS revenue was 29.1% of total company revenue in the first quarter, down slightly from 29.7% in all of 2014, but well ahead of the 24.6% in 2013.

Weis said recruiting employees to the area can be difficult. It’s a small population area and many are unfamiliar with all that is offered.

“It is a wonderful place to raise families and a great region. We just need more pull and more students to pull from.”

Weis said USA Truck fills many entry level positions in logistics each year. He actively recruits and interacts with logistics and supply chain management students in the state several times a year as well as out of state locations.

“With this many transportation and logistics opportunities here, we need to hone in on building more opportunities,” he said. “Having another educational option in our area for logistics is a huge opportunity.”

By having the degree program at ATU-Ozark, the potential to retain students to this area is more likely since the college attracts enrollment mostly from the local area and graduates will have existing ties to the region. It is also an attraction for those adult students returning to college for re-training or a second degree. Taber said the logistics-related courses at UAFS also draw many adult students.

Weis worked with Sykes and Michael Murders, chief academic officer at ATU-Ozark, when curriculum was being created for the AAS logistics degree. He, along with leaders from Cloyes Gears, Pernod Ricard USA and other local firms will serve on an advisory board for the LGM AAS degree program. Sykes said the interaction with local organizations was crucial to getting the program approved.

“They validated the numbers, the wage potential, the skill sets and ultimately, what we asked them to do is validate the curriculum.”

He gives credit to Murders and other faculty for spearheading the talks with industry and fine-tuning the curriculum offerings.

“When you talk about logistics, it’s a broad field but there is also a lot of specialization there,” said Murders. “We are building a good foundation to create knowledgable entry level employees that meet the industry needs.”

Taber said supply chain management and logistics skills learned at UAFS can compute to a number of other business fields, making the training an even bigger value for graduates and employers.

“Students can apply the skills they learn in our courses to any manufacturing plant around the Fort Smith area, whether it is fitting into the logistics field or another business position,” she said.

Sykes agreed about ATU-Ozark’s offering, saying, “We are certain that our curriculum will give our graduates skill sets for the logistics industry. But, we also feel it is a program that will serve even a broader range than just logistics.”

Expectations are to enroll 80 students in the logistics management degree program the first three years, graduating more than 20 after year three. Enrollment for ATU-Ozark in Fall 2014 was 2178 students. UAFS enrolls 300 students in their BS Organizational Leadership program and 130 in their BSA program.