College ID Programs Gaining in Popularity

March 21, 2003
While most industrial distribution graduates walk away from college with a job in hand, it's a field that unfortunately still has a low profile on the

While most industrial distribution graduates walk away from college with a job in hand, it's a field that unfortunately still has a low profile on the radar screens of the many college students who flock to glitzier majors with dreams of fortune and fame.

However, according to this month's cover story in Electrical Wholesaling magazine, industrial distribution seems to be slowly but surely growing in popularity on college campuses. Texas A&M University's industrial distribution (ID) program in College Station, Texas, now has 650 students. The ID program that James Toppen, Ph.D, started six years ago at East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., with nine students now has 150 students. Toppen expects to have 250 students by next year.

Graduates of ID programs are not immune to the pain of the slow economic recovery. Signing bonuses are reportedly not as common as in the past, and graduates are getting one or two job offers before graduation, as opposed to the two or three offers they were getting before the recession.

Aside from the solid placement rates, another reason for the popularity of the programs is the starting salaries. According to a survey of the 2001 graduates of Texas A&M's ID program, the average base salary accepted was $43,445. Depending on the university, 40 percent to 60 percent of the students take jobs with distributors in trades such as electrical, industrial, construction, pipe, valves and fittings (PVF) and fasteners. The rest sign with manufacturers of this equipment and some go to work for independent manufacturers' reps. Electrical distributors get their share of ID graduates, but they must compete with distributors in other construction and industrial trades.

One feature common to many of the industrial distribution programs is the adaptation of the education they provide students to the evolving needs of employers. Several program directors agreed that employers want new employees to have more information technology (IT) knowledge than in the past.

Jay Smith, who runs the ID program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said his program's advisory board wants students to be familiar with distribution software. “They are not going to be programmers, but they should know how to use the inventory-management and warehouse management features and parts of the programs that help distributors operate more efficiently,” he said.

Ben Zoghi, program coordinator for Texas A&M's undergraduate and graduate programs, agrees with the need for IT experience, and Texas A&M has woven IT study into its curriculum. His program's advisory board also suggested students get additional instruction in leadership skills. In addition, Zoghi recently started up a focus on global distribution where students can study overseas at global distributors.

Every program has a different focus. Traditionally, ID programs fall under either the engineering or business schools at universities, which affects whether the curriculum has more of a business or engineering flavor. In recent years, supply chain management has become popular, and many ID programs have made major commitments to this field of study.

Some programs focus on this discipline entirely. The University of Wisconsin offers a master's degree in business administration and a master's of science degree in supply chain management at its Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management, and the University of Central Washington offers a 25-credit certificate in supply chain management at its campuses in Lynnwood and Ellensburg, Wash.

The School of Business at Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., beat out some big-name schools when it was recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as having the 13th best business program in the United States because of its Global Supply Chain Management program. Clarkson also has a strong ID program.

But more traditional fields of study sell, too. At East Carolina University, the ID program focuses on logistics and sales. James Toppen, the program's coordinator, says while the majority of his students go into the sales area, it's important that they get a taste of logistics, too.

“The majority of them go into sales right now because that's where the jobs are and the money is at,” he says. “But we have focused on two different areas. If you take a look at ID programs, they generally take a logistics model or a sales model. We have combined both of them.”

He speaks with pride on the fast growth of his program and attributes much of it to the real-world sales training his ID program offers. His students not only learn about selling, they promote and sell East Carolina University's ID program.

“We go to all the high schools, says Toppen, who was a salesperson in the printing industry before coming to East Carolina University. “The students do all of the promotion, sales contacts and call reports. I do all of the closing.”

As the educational needs evolve, so have industrial distribution programs. One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the advent of distance learning programs, which are now being offered by several of the programs.

Texas A&M's Ben Zoghi has launched a Web-based Master of Industrial Distribution program that will graduate 12 students this May. Students take all courses over the Internet in the two-year, 36-credit program. They also must spend two weeks in residency at Texas A&M University.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Jay Smith says an online class that he did for 200 students drew ratings much higher than when he presents the same material in a traditional lecture.

Many of the universities also offer two- or three-day executive-level distribution courses at their campuses. Some of the universities offering these courses include (but are not limited to) Texas A&M University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Northwestern University (Evanston campus), Purdue University, Ohio State University and Clarkson University.

Whether they focus in industrial distribution, supply chain management, logistics or a mix of disciplines, university programs in industrial distribution all have a common goal: getting the word out to prospective students about an industry that offers a satisfying career path.

“Industrial distribution is the unknown degree, says East Carolina University's Dr. James Toppen, “Nobody knows about it.”