Although the terminology can sometimes sound dryly academic, everything from the success of our modern economies to the quality of the food we eat depends on efficient logistics and supply chain management (LSCM).
William Ng, managing director of UPS Hong Kong and Macau, says it is possible to define logistics in simple terms. "Logistics is about getting things where they need to be, exactly when they need to be there, and doing it as efficiently as possible."
However, with production and trade becoming increasingly international, this doesn't give a clear impression of the complexities involved. "For instance, in the process of manufacturing for the high-tech industry, each product is developed using small components from different parts of the world."
Professor Tan Chung-jen, CEO of the Hong Kong R&D Centre for Logistics and Supply Chain Management Enabling Technologies, draws a distinction between logistics and supply chain management. "Supply chain management involves a total integration of the many business processes required. This involves not just logistics but also information flow; the way businesses deal with each other; how materials are sourced; how the goods are manufactured; how they are distributed efficiently; how the retailers place orders and deal with customers; and how the flow of money, loans and credit is managed."
At a time of natural and man-made disasters, and worries about fake goods, Tan uses the example of food safety to highlight the importance of LSCM. "From farm to supermarket you want to know where the food came from, who shipped it, is it safe or has it been contaminated." The economic boom on the mainland has created huge opportunities for those working in the LSCM industry. "You cannot just talk about the manufacturing boom," Tan says. "China is gradually becoming the leading retail market in the world."
In the Pearl River Delta region in particular, UPS has seen a surge in its package and freight business.
"According to the International Air Transport Association, Hong Kong is the fastest-growing international freight market with a projected 12.3 per cent growth rate between 2009 and 2014," Ng says. UPS has taken steps to handle the potential increase in business. "In May 2010, we opened the UPS Shenzhen Asia-Pacific hub at Shenzhen Baoan International Airport, aimed at accelerating the flow of customers' packages and heavy freight throughout the Asia Pacific region." To function efficiently, the LSCM has to employ talent with a wide-range of skills.
"We hire people with different expertise in sales, marketing, HR, engineering, IT and finance," Ng says. "Recently, we have also started hiring pharmacists as we grow our healthcare logistics business."
Rocky Chen, HR Manager for UPS Hong Kong and Macau, points out that technology still remains an integral part of the firm's business. "In particular, industrial engineers have the skill set and training that fits in well with our business model. We also have a technology support group and positions in operations." But scientists should not feel typecast, Chen adds. "Over the years, we have seen a number of employees with engineering and IT backgrounds transition successfully to sales, marketing and even HR positions within the company."
Chen believes that the prospects are good for graduates from all disciplines joining UPS. He cites the company's training and career development programmes, and says that as of last year, about 75 per cent of departmental managers had been promoted from within.
"On a bi-yearly basis, employees and their supervisors review performance together and set a target, which will then be approved at management level. When an employee successfully achieves a target, an opportunity to proceed to the next level will be offered. Hence, employees can initiate their own career development plans," Chen says.
Tan believes the LCSM business model and the enabling technology are constantly changing. "Businesses need people with general skills who can manage change, who can face change and who can innovate." He believes that the rewards can be great for those joining the industry. "But you have to equip yourself to face new challenges all the time."