Wanted: 1.4 million new supply chain workers by 2018

The offices at Coyote Logistics in Chicago (Courtesy: Coyote Logistics)

FORTUNE — How can a $1.3 trillion industry, getting bigger every year, be hidden in plain sight?

Easy. The vast U.S. logistics business, which delivers 48 million tons of freight (worth about $48 billion) daily and already employs roughly 6 million people, operates mostly behind the scenes.

“When you order something from, say, Amazon, you know it arrives on your doorstep in two days, but most people don’t think about how,” observes George Prest, CEO of logistics trade group Material Handling Industry (MHI). He adds that the field gets overlooked by new grads in particular, who think of supply-chain work — if they think of it at all — as “a guy driving a forklift in a dusty old factory.”

That outdated image is a huge hurdle for an industry that badly needs new talent in high tech, analytics, robotics, and engineering. Career changers, take note: Seasoned managers, marketers, data analysts, and human resources executives are also in demand. “There are currently six to eight management jobs available for each applicant we get, and the median salary is about $80,000,” notes Prest — and that’s even before the wave of boomer retirements the MHI projects over the next few years. In total, says a new MHI report, the logistics business will be looking to fill about 1.4 million jobs, or roughly 270,000 per year, by 2018.

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“We’ve been living with this problem for eight or nine years now,” says Ed Romaine, a vice president at Integrated Systems Design, headquartered in Wixom, Mich. “The competition for talent is so fierce that we’ve had to get creative.” The company recently trolled LinkedIn for two new engineering hires, and “one of our top salespeople was recruited away from a former customer.”

“I think the challenge we have is the same as for lots of manufacturing companies,” says Chuck Edwards, president of Lenze Americas, the Uxbridge, Mass.-based arm of German logistics giant Lenze, which specializes in supply-chain automation, software, and systems integration. “How do you communicate to college kids that this stuff is cool?” Like other supply-chain employers, Lenze recruits heavily at a handful of colleges “with strong engineering and tech programs,” including MIT, Cornell, and Purdue.

Lenze Americas also sponsors student projects and sends guest speakers to campuses. “The more we can get face-to-face with kids, the better we can explain where the real excitement, and the future growth, is,” Edwards says. “You can’t really convey that via social media.”

For people who have been out of college for a while and want a shot at one of those 1.4 million job openings, supply-chain recruiter Eve O’Reilly has some advice. First, do enough research through the trade press to know which part of the sprawling logistics business is most likely to be seeking your skills.

For instance, “’strategic sourcing’ is the industry term for procurement management [purchasing supplies and materials for companies],” says O’Reilly, who heads up supply-chain executive search firm O’Reilly Group. “Other fields call it something else, but it’s one of the skills that’s easily transferable. Likewise, there are lots of opportunities for proven salespeople.”

Next, whatever your background, O’Reilly recommends studying for professional certifications through one of two big nonprofit groups, the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals and the Institute for Supply Management. “If you can, go to the huge national conferences CSCMP sponsors,” she suggests. “It’s a great way to meet people in the industry” who may know about specific job openings. CSCMP also has “lots of local chapters all over the U.S., even in small towns,” so O’Reilly recommends signing up for one near you.

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Chuck Edwards notes that “there are articles galore online about the industry, and most of them link to white papers that companies publish about the challenges the business faces right now. Take a look at those, and think about where your skills apply.”

In his view, to fill the multitude of job openings, supply-chain companies will have to try harder to see how people from other industries fit in. “Analytics, scheduling, complex problem solving, project management — we need all of these, and they’re very easily transferred from another business,” he says.

“But we as employers need to help people see where their skills fit, and not get hung up on the jargon in a job description,” he adds. “It’s up to us to get the word out about what we need, and convey that management talent need not come with industry experience.”

Ed Romaine agrees. “We’re always looking for capable people,” he says. “We’re hiring. Tell your friends.”

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