How Logistics And Supply Chain Management Are Getting More Popular : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money In the high school lunchroom version of business school, finance majors were the popular jocks and logistics majors were... the math club. But nowadays, they're sitting at the cool kids' table.

Revenge of the math club

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

So what do you do? That is a question a lot of us have probably gotten a thousand times before, but for Terry Esper, it used to be kind of awkward. He still remembers people's reactions when he told them, I work in logistics.

TERRY ESPER: What? What's that? (Laughter) It was like, logistics, linguistics. (Laughter) And so needless to say, there was a lot of confusion about what it was.

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

This relative invisibility continued when Terry became a logistics professor - oh, yes, he did - in "The Breakfast Club"/"Mean Girls" version of business school. Everyone knew the cliques. Finance majors were the jocks. Marketing attracted the artsy crowd, and the logistics majors...

MA: Like, where do they sit in the lunch room?

ESPER: I would say that - I mean, the logistics crew would probably be the kids that are, you know, they're probably like the math club in a sense, right?

MA: But also, like, the math team - not exactly like kings and queens of the school.

ESPER: Yeah, and I say this as someone who has a degree in math. So (laughter)...

HERSHIPS: School can be so tough, but how the tables have turned.

ESPER: Nowadays, you know, that crew is becoming the jocks, if you will, right? I mean, we're starting to see this transition, where the popular kids, the cool kids, are the logistics and supply chain kids.

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MA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships in for Stacey Vanek Smith. On today's show, it is revenge of the mathletes. We'll learn just what the heck is logistics anyway and how it went from obscurity to newfound popularity.

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HERSHIPS: We'll get to why the logistics profession is having its own special moment. But before that, let's go back to Terry at the Ohio State University for a little primer.

MA: Basic, basic, what is logistics? And I feel like I always hear logistics and supply chain management sort of coupled together like peanut butter and jelly. Like, why do those things seem to go together all the time?

ESPER: I'll start with supply chain. Supply chain management is essentially the entire kind of system of processes that products go through in order to get to the market.

MA: So everything from raw materials and manufacturing to packaging and delivery - all those steps together are the supply chain, which has to be managed somehow.

ESPER: Logistics is responsible for the movement and the flow, so the transportation, the inventory management, the warehousing, the distribution center operations; all of those things that kind of handle the movement of those products across that supply chain.

HERSHIPS: So if the product is toilet paper, a logistician's job would be figuring out the most efficient way to get the pulp to the factory, then finished rolls to a warehouse and eventually onto store shelves.

MA: Now, all this sounds fine in theory. But if you're wondering as I was what all this translates into practice, I have one answer here, Sally, in the form of professor Terry Esper's logistics exam.

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HERSHIPS: Oh, my God, is this, like, a pop quiz? (Laughter).

MA: Pop quiz - that is right.

HERSHIPS: I did not get the assignment.

(LAUGHTER)

MA: OK, so question one - true or false? If a product has good in-stock levels, that means it also has good on-shelf availability.

HERSHIPS: False.

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MA: That is correct.

HERSHIPS: Woo.

MA: OK. Here's another one. VMI - this is a pretty key logistics term. VMI is an abbreviation for variability management information; vendor-managed inventory; vibration, motion and inflection; or variably monitored inventory?

HERSHIPS: I'm going to go with D - option D.

MA: That is incorrect.

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HERSHIPS: No, I should have gone with my gut. Was it B?

MA: It was B. It was vendor-managed inventory. So all of this may seem super wonky, but once you start to understand these concepts, Terry says it is like having a window on another layer of reality.

ESPER: That's exactly how I felt when I first learned about logistics was - I felt as if I had become a member of some secret fraternity, if you will.

HERSHIPS: Maybe a little too secret - Terry says most freshmen business students know about finance. They know about accounting and marketing. But when he started teaching in the early 2000s, drumming up interest in his classes required a slightly harder sell.

ESPER: In those early days, we did have to do a lot more kind of teasing out why logistics was important, really showcasing the career opportunities and the starting salaries and all those things that we would kind of dangle and say, hey, you know, come consider this major.

HERSHIPS: Partly, this was because of the popular perception of the logistics profession, which is to say there wasn't one.

MA: Yeah. I mean, marketing and finance don't have this problem, right? There are already a lot of movies and TV shows about stockbrokers and ad executives.

HERSHIPS: There is even a big-budget action movie about an accountant.

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CYNTHIA ADDAI-ROBINSON: (As Marybeth) So who is he?

J K SIMMONS: (As Ray) The accountant.

ADDAI-ROBINSON: (As Marybeth) Like a CPA accountant?

SIMMONS: (As Ray) Not quite.

MA: And, you know, I did a little Googling, and I could not find one show or film about a mysterious and charismatic supply chain manager.

HERSHIPS: I mean, I am really, truly shocked to hear that. Probably the closest the profession came to having its own big breakout pop culture moment was about a decade ago.

ESPER: UPS came out with this little jingle some years ago called "We Love Logistics." Do you remember that?

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NADIA ACKERMAN: (Singing) When it's planes in the sky for a chain of supply, that's logistics.

ESPER: It was the - to the tune of "That's Amore."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE LOVE LOGISTICS")

ACKERMAN: (Singing) When the parts for the line come precisely on time...

ESPER: (Singing) That's logistics, and we love logistics. It was such a cool ad.

HERSHIPS: Cool is one way of putting it (laughter).

MA: I mean, OK, not exactly "Mad Men," but that's how things were about a decade ago. A lot of corporations were beefing up their logistics knowhow, but it was far from a household concept. And that slowly changed as e-commerce grew and people got used to ordering stuff online and getting it in a day or less.

HERSHIPS: But Terry says awareness really shifted during the past year and a half, and you can probably guess why - all those toilet paper shortages. COVID took supply chains from being this abstract thing to something really personal.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: You might have noticed grocery stores are still having trouble keeping some items on the shelves.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Walmart, the country's largest retailer, says supply chains have not been able to keep pace with increasing demand for toilet paper.

ESPER: I think the effects of COVID have kind of taken that awareness all the way down to your average American.

MA: And because of that, Terry says he doesn't really have to give students the hard sell anymore. Some are even defecting from other majors.

JANE DRESSING: When some of my friends were like, you're taking a logistics course, I'm like, yeah, I have no clue what it's going to be about - FedEx moving stuff.

HERSHIPS: Jane Dressing (ph) is a senior at Ohio State.

DRESSING: Within the first week of taking my logistics course and learning about logistics, I was like, wow, I love this. This is fascinating.

MA: And that is why Jane says she's planning to switch her major from finance to logistics.

DRESSING: My parents also wanted to hear my reasoning behind wanting to switch. But the more I talk about it, the more I learn, and I really feel like it's for me.

MA: For her and a lot of others - according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of people who got bachelor's in logistics last year is more than triple what it was a decade ago,

HERSHIPS: And that growth is expected to continue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of people working as logisticians will increase 30% over the next decade. So get ready, America.

MA: HBO, are you listening? Time for maybe an epic supply chain manager movie.

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MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Michael He. The show is edited by Kate Concannon, and it is a production of NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: In a world where shipping has slowed to a crawl, where in-stock levels don't equal on-shelf availability, who can create order from chaos?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: (As character) Is anyone here a supply chain manager?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3, BYLINE: (As character) I am.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In theaters this fall, it's "The Logistician" (ph).

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