Advanced Manufacturing and Conexus and Economic Development and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics and Distribution & Logistics

Logistics advocacy group Conexus gears up for statewide pitch

December 17, 2007

Serving as President Bush's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education--that was a breeze.

And her most recent gig as No. 2 administrator of the political leaching field also known as Ivy Tech Community College was a walk in the park. Carol D'Amico's biggest challenge yet may be getting thousands of Hoosiers to embrace a career path few can even define.

The president and CEO of the newly formed industry advocacy group Conexus Indiana is intent on boosting the visibility and growth of the logistics industry. Large though it is, it's also relatively ambiguous and sits in the shadow of the state's much-vaunted life sciences industry. The latter is the high-paying, high-growth sector seen by many as Indiana's economic salvation as its traditional manufacturing wanes. "Logistics," on the other hand, "doesn't conjure up an occupation in your mind," said D'Amico, recalling her staff's informal surveys of local residents. "There were some blank stares."

Even D'Amico has struggled at times to get up to speed on logistics in the five months since she took the reins at Conexus, which also promotes advanced manufacturing.

"These logistics jobs are much more technical than I thought," she said.

The logistics industry in central Indiana covers 18 sectors, including general freight trucking, warehousing and even pipeline transportation, according to a 2006 study by the Indianapolis Private Industry Council.

To further confuse, some of the logistics industry is actually "buried" inside other industries, such as manufacturing, IPIC noted.

Education about the industry, therefore, will be one of Conexus' biggest hurdles, D'Amico said.

Specifically, Conexus will help coordinate efforts of educational institutions to fill the pipeline for logistics and advanced manufacturing jobs.

It also will promote the sectors and help companies find economic development dollars from a variety of sources.

"What BioCrossroads has done for life sciences we have to do for logistics," D'Amico said.

Over the last five months, D'Amico has been busy raising money, an effort not as daunting as she'd expected.

Logistics firms are alarmed by the prospect of waves of baby boomers retiring in the next decade and frustrated in their efforts to fill those jobs.

Some of the money raised by Conexus, an arm of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, will be used to market the heck out of logistics, to entice future workers.

D'Amico won't quantify the marketing budget. But besides traditional print and electronic messages, Conexus will reach out to the younger generation through Web avenues such as YouTube. Her team is even looking at breaking into Second Life, a Web world where members assume an alternative identity in the form of a three-dimensional avatar they create.

Yep, logistics employers are getting that desperate.

At the same time, D'Amico said, she also needs to reach parents. Studies have shown they are one of the primary sources of influence when it comes to their children's career considerations.

She ran into one recent high school graduate who'd been working as a waitress until landing a job at a frequent diner's logistics firm. Now the former waitress monitors the status of international shipments.

"She said, 'I wish we would have known about this when we were in high school.' That's the kind of stories we need to tell kids," D'Amico said.

"I'm not sure people appreciate how important logistics and advanced manufacturing are," said Mark Howell, president of Plainfield-based wireless phone distributor Brightpoint Inc. He also serves on the Conexus board.

The problem

IPIC estimates that 9,000 logistics jobs will be created by 2012 in central Indiana alone. The people who fill those jobs will join more than 41,000 in the region who already work in such jobs at about 1,300 companies. About 5 percent of all jobs in the region are in logistics.

Employers complain of shortages primarily in two areas, according to IPIC. One is in lower-skilled jobs, such as basic warehouse work, where high turnover is common. Many of the most sought after workers are Hispanics, for their strong work ethic. Yet a poor command of English often limits their ability to advance.

"On the other end of the employment spectrum, universities and colleges have only begun to address the region's need for high-end technical and managerial talent required to drive the growth of [logistics] companies," the IPIC report said.

"Central Indiana lacks breadth and depth of post-secondary opportunities in logistics and supply chain management."

Yet it's not necessarily workers with bachelor's degrees who are in short supply. Where D'Amico sees much of the job gap is among technical jobs in the industry. How do you take existing workers earning $8 or $10 an hour and make them technical trouble-shooters--some with supervisory skills--that fetch closer to $15 an hour?

At places like Brightpoint, many of the lower-wage jobs a decade ago that involved packaging wireless phones are now done by automated equipment. The humans down on the production floor keep those sophisticated systems running and handle trouble-shooting. Perhaps an item to be shipped is kicked off the line: Workers have to figure out why and fix the problem.

Many of the logistics jobs at Brightpoint and other companies involve information technology. Brightpoint's growing e-business operation ships more than 20,000 wireless phones directly to customers each day.

"The jobs are incredibly sophisticated," Howell said.

So one of the challenges for Conexus is to help create accreditation opportunities for several specific skill sets needed in the industry--such as transportation management and quality control--and to convince educational institutions to offer them.

There's been some progress. Ivy Tech, for example, now offers a number of logistics-specific programs.

"What employers are telling us is they want [training] done quickly, but also for it to be accessible to workers," D'Amico said.

Both Ivy Tech and Vincennes University have been working on additional training programs related to the field, according to Conexus.

Indiana University created a new graduate degree in supply chain management, while the University of Indianapolis is working on undergradate programs.

Efforts scattered

Some have already been trying to get the word out about careers in logistics. Leslie Gardner, a professor of operations management and mathematics at the University of Indianapolis, has been working to open math students' eyes to such fields as logistics and advanced manufacturing. She's partnered with teachers in Lawrence Township's McKenzie Career Center and Batesville Middle School.

"Math teachers really struggle a lot of times with application for what they're teaching," Gardner said.

And it's no wonder logistics firms sometimes struggle to get the right workers.

"You say, 'logistics,' and they think nothing at all, or of 'Bubba loading the truck,'" Gardner said.

That was until she and teachers conducted simulations in packaging, manufacturing and distribution. The "mathematically rich experiences" are capped with a visit to an actual distribution facility, such as that of clothing giant Red Cats in Indianapolis. Gardner's goal is to offer supply chain management college-credit courses for high school students at U of I starting in 2009. She'd love to coordinate the curriculum with Conexus' goals.

Coordination appears to be exactly what is needed for building the logistics industry, said the IPIC report. It noted efforts at IU, Ivy Tech and U of I and "scattered courses" at universities in the region in logistics fields.

"These are all positive developments, steps in the right direction. They are, nonetheless, timid steps, which so far lack sufficient urgency and coordination," the report said.

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