Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Crossroads 2011 conference which was sponsored by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, a very visionary forum in researching and predicting the future of global supply chains.  The goal of Crossroads 2011 was for select MIT faculty to outline the disruptive innovations that could shape the future of global supply chains and the talks were fascinating. The presentations addressed ultra-low power design technology and self-powered applications, personal health devices, advanced robotics, alternative energy and other technologies. While some attendees may have questioned the overall timing and disruptive tendencies of these technologies, they were certainly fascinating and made one think about the notion that technology marches forward, even if we are sometimes not ready to embrace its implications.

One presentation that especially captured my interest was that delivered by Dr. Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Age Lab at MIT.  Dr. Coughlin’s presentation addressed our global aging population trends and how these trends will manifest themselves in supply chain innovation.  As an example, some sobering statistics that were noted by Dr. Coughlin include:

By 2050, there will be more people over 60 than children in the world.  That implies that there will be more walkers and wheelchairs required and produced than baby carriages.

The ‘baby boomer’ population remains a key target for companies targeting new and innovative products and these innovations, according to Dr. Coughlin will come in the areas of implantable sensors, wearables,  and interactive health applications such as smart toilets. Single person and aging households are among the fastest growing demographic which Dr. Coughlin feels will drive a new era of shopping and home-based logistics.  Big box stores in mega shopping centers may be something of the past as one person households seek a more personal urban or rural shopping experience and consumer products providers practice just-in-time to the home shelf. Large chains such as Wal-Mart and Target are already experiencing the initial effects of this trend. Products ordered on the Internet will not only be delivered but setup and serviced by the logistics provider. Dr. Coughlin’s terminology was “brown meets the geek squad”. Whether the likes of a Fedex or UPS can make money on direct home logistics is another matter altogether.

One other myth that Dr. Coughlin debunked was the notion of the aging workforce, and how older, experienced workers have to step aside to make room for a surging and aggressive group of younger workers. Aging populations will have to work far longer in their careers, and our greatest challenge as a society will be the constant retraining of older workers in newer technologies. That statement really resonated with this baby boomer since I have too often observed recruiters and hiring professionals practicing subtle but obvious age discrimination, regardless of a person’s experience factor. Dr. Coughlin’s take was that there are not enough members of a younger workforce to cover workforce skill requirements.

That also led me to ponder on last week’s Supply Chain Matters commentary reflecting on the interim report from President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competiveness.  Among the immediate goals outlined by the Council was an all-hands-on-deck strategy to train 10,000 new American engineers every year.  In an editorial commentary printed in the Wall Street Journal, Council co-chairs Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Ken Chenault of American Express noted that there are currently more than two million open jobs in the U.S. that are unfilled in part because employers cannot find workers with advanced manufacturing skills.  It is not rocket science to conclude that some of these open positions were created by older and highly experienced workers retiring.  Would it not be great if industry and academia can find a way for these experienced workers to transfer their knowledge as part-time instructors or mentors, and at the same time, afford the opportunity to continue to be gainfully employed.  Instead of automatically screening resumes and job applications for age and salary, would it not be more beneficial to screen for needed skills, allowing candidates the opportunity to sell their skills in an interviewing setting.  Bold vision could be a recommendation for additional governmental incentives for hiring older workers.

This age of social media too often brings a short-term lens, a focus on the ‘now’ vs. a focus on goals and objectives. Technology will continue to provide all of us profound benefits but at the same time, technology needs to have a context.  People, human relationships and developed skills will always matter in managing complex global supply chains.

Congratulations to the MIT CTL team for assembling a great program.

Bob Ferrari