Basic training

Basic training

William J. DeWitt is a professor of logistics, transportation and supply-chain management at the University of Maryland's business school. Not long ago, he was comparing notes with a counterpart at another major university with a well-regarded logistics program.

DeWitt's friend remarked that his school no longer taught transportation as a stand-alone course, but had folded it into a broader class on supply-chain management.

How much instruction time was devoted to transportation? DeWitt asked. About two weeks, his friend replied.

"I said, 'Wait a minute,'" DeWitt recalled. "Transportation is at least 60 percent of logistics costs, and they're giving it two weeks out of a 15-week semester, four classes out of 30? Something seems out of balance."

DeWitt says he's troubled by the de-emphasis on transportation in logistics and supply-chain curriculums at many colleges and universities. He says the trend has been building for years, fueled by three major developments:

First, a foundation-funded study in 1959 that faulted business-school curriculums for an excessive vo-tech orientation, and cited transportation courses. Second, deregulation, which allowed companies to organize supply chains on economic principles instead of regulatory requirements. And third, the emergence in the 1990s of information technology that quickly assumed a central role in logistics education.

DeWitt isn't campaigning for universities to offer a transportation major, or to cut back on current logistics classes. He doesn't dispute the need to provide students with a broad understanding of supply-chain management, or to teach them to use software tools such as enterprise planning resource systems. But he would like to see universities include transportation as a key part of their overall logistics and supply-chain curriculum.

He says logistics students receive first-rate training in technology, but many aren't being provided with a thorough grounding in the nitty-gritty work that underpins supply chains.

DeWitt admits he's biased. Before entering academia, he spent a quarter-century in the railroad industry. There he learned that transportation doesn't always work the way it should, and that when an unexpected disruption occurs, a basic understanding of transportation is essential.

Transportation usually runs smoothly, despite occasional disruptions such as the West Coast port shutdown of 2002, the rail capacity problems of recent years, and the effects of floods, storms and other natural disasters.

Consequently, DeWitt says, many people in the business today have "an inherent assumption that transportation will continue to function well. But when it doesn't, will we have people in place who know what their options are? ERP is a great tool, but ultimately that's what it is, a tool. The base of the business is still materials-handling, warehousing and transportation, and you have to know how it works."

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at