The eternal learner

From the August 2023 print edition

When it comes to supply chain, Jennifer Souch’s experience has been unique: it’s not everyone who gets to take a wealth of industry expertise and pass it along to those just starting their careers.


Souch spent years working in the field – honing her skills and knowledge at the General Motors’ Canadian manufacturing plant in Oshawa, Ontario. But she has since entered a second phase of her career, teaching students as professor and program coordinator in the faculty of business at Durham College, also in Oshawa.

The opportunity to pass along that knowledge is a large part of what gives meaning
to her role, she says.

“Even as a practitioner, you don’t finish learning,” she says. “As I transitioned my career, education played a big part in my ability to move and, I think, even as a supply chain professional, in my continued development. I’m a lifelong learner. And that’s an important aspect of any supply chain career, whether it’s on the academic side or in the field. So that’s what I continue to do. And as technology evolves, it’s important to be in front of, or at least on path with, some of those advancements.”

Like many in the profession, Souch ventured into supply chain management almost by accident. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto but realized near the end of the program that although she had specialized in biology and chemistry, a career in that field wasn’t for her.

Instead, she began a position at General Motors, which represented her first exposure to supply chain, or what the company called operations management. She expected to work in the company’s paint facility because it seemed to align the most with her science background. But she ended up in the chassis facility, in the manufacturing area.

The automotive industry came with a steep learning curve, Souch says. Yet, she enjoyed the challenges that General Motors offered in her early days with the company. At the time, the Oshawa facility represented the highest-quality plant within the corporation, she notes.

“I had a really good experience working for General Motors,” she says. “I started there
as a frontline manager and progressed through different areas of the company. I was involved
in a new manufacturing facility, setting up some of our offline facilities. I was involved
in new vehicle development and watching products within our manufacturing facility. Later in my career there, I was involved with the implementation of the global manufacturing system, which is, I’ll say, General Motors’ version of Toyota Production System, and implementing that across our Oshawa sight was some of the most rewarding work that I did early in my career.”

Souch ventured into academics when she took a teaching position at Durham College
in 2010. During her time there, General Motors had shifted from traditional automotive manufacturing to a more lean, flexible operation.

As a result, Souch was able to do a lot of corporate training on lean initiatives. That gave her the experience she needed to teach courses at General Motors on lean operations and global manufacturing, from the perspective of corporate leaders all the way to frontline staff.

“That was where I dipped my toe in the water before I ventured over to the world of academia,” she says of teaching at the company. “My thought at that time was, ‘if I can teach here, I think I can teach anywhere,’ because there were some tough teaching days, especially in a blue-collar, unionized environment that was very male dominated at that time.”

Souch considers herself fortunate that, while employed at General Motors, the company had a program that allowed her to complete additional education. She therefore earned a Master of Science degree from Kettering University, a small, Michigan-based institution, as well as a Master of Business Administration from Indiana University, Kelley School of Business.

The combination of that education and her experience at General Motors helped her forge a path in teaching when she left the company, she says. She now considers it a “leap of faith” to go from a stable, well-paying job into academia. But her passion for learning propelled her, along with the belief that education can change people’s lives.

“I had a lot of faith that, because of my education and experience, I would land somewhere after parting ways with General Motors,” she says.

Souch is also a designation holder (CPIM) from the Association of Supply Chain Management (ASCM), and has the PMP designation from the Project Management Institute (PMI).

School days
During a semester, Souch teaches between four and five academic courses across different programming. The clusters of programs that she has under her purview include diploma, advanced diploma, and the recently launched graduate certificate program.

Students enroll either directly from high school or else have another degree or work experience before admission. Students may be young and new to the field, or they may be more seasoned professionals.

And just as in supply chain, no two days in academia are the same.

“It’s a lot of coaching and mentoring, so I feel that I have experience and education to share,” she says. “It’s helping students understand how that curriculum applies in a real-world setting. I think having the education and the experience in the field helps students. It’s storytelling, and it’s using a lot of my own experience from what I saw as well as tapping into employers.”

To help students on their journey, Souch works to build relationships with those employers. That can include bringing in company representatives for recruitment events, hosting alumni for guest-speaker engagements, along with other strategies to build bridges between students and the supply chain world. Part of the purpose, she says, involves helping students to understand the diversity of the supply chain management field.

“When I look at my day-to-day, it’s about helping students understand the wide span and career pathways in supply chain,” she says. “It’s a challenge, but rewarding, because sometimes students come into a program, and they don’t have a good sense of the broadness or the vastness of career opportunities. So, on a day-to-day basis I would say, it’s definitely teaching, but coaching and mentoring are really at the heart of everything that we’re doing in the supply chain programs at Durham College.”

Souch’s twin careers in the field and in academia have produced some highlights. At General Motors, the process of launching the Camaro from a concept to the manufacturing stage, to having a sellable vehicle was, for her, a particularly exciting project to be involved with, she says.

At Durham College, launching the global supply chain management graduate certificate program also proved exciting and rewarding, she says. That program emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public realized the important contribution that supply chain professionals made in keeping the world running. At the time, Souch was hearing employers’ concerns about the skills and knowledge gap among job candidates. Durham College first offered the program in fall of 2022 and the first class graduated recently.

During her career Souch, along with the teams she’s worked with, has received various awards and accolades. She got the Chairman’s Honors Award at General Motors, and her team at Durham College has been recognized often for their work. That team was, for example, responsible for being one of the first to pilot and launch a formal co-op internship program.

The team hasn’t received any formal award for the program. But Souch stresses that kind of recognition isn’t particularly important to her sense of career accomplishment.

“I would say that our graduates speak for our success,” she says. “We’re there to help develop emerging professionals. And the success of our graduates in the field speaks to that. When you hear from alumni that you taught 13-plus years ago and they say ‘here’s my career path,’ and ‘here’s where I’ve gone,’ that’s the rewarding part – certainly for me and I would say across my faculty team, in terms of why we do what we do in a day.”

Like any field, those graduates face challenges once they enter the workforce. One such demand Souch sees is how dynamic the sector has become. While it has never been static, supply chain is now even more complex than in the past, she says. That’s especially true in the post-pandemic world, where challenges related to how goods are moved, as well as the timeframe, have grown rapidly.

The increased importance of sustainability and the need for more ethical supply chains presents yet another challenge, Souch says. Navigating these issues is important to graduates, who must be prepared to tackle them. That requires an innovative, out-of-the-box vision of the field.
Graduates must understand the implications of their decisions, not only for the business but for the planet as well, Souch stresses. The professional toolkit they need for this has changed over the years, and those entering the field must realize that.

“We’re very fortunate to have employers that provide direct feedback on trends in the field, and can say ‘here’s the gap of skills and knowledge that we’re seeing that we need closed,’” she says. “Data-driven decisions are critical, so in the last five years (we’ve seen) the emergence of business analytics as it relates to all aspects of supply chain. Making sure from the academic side that our graduates have the skills and knowledge that they need to be effective supply chain practitioners is important.”

Always learning
With supply chain such a dynamic field, there’s always a need to learn something new, even in academia, Souch says. Those who teach must ensure they stay in front of professional trends. That way, they can prepare graduates for their future careers.

For her own professional development, Souch works to increase her skills and knowledge of the field to support her students. For example, she completed a business analytics certificate through Cornell University just before the beginning of the pandemic. Developing her own knowledge shows her students that, even as a supply chain practitioner, you never finish learning, she says.
Souch lives with her family on a rural property in Durham Region, east of Toronto. She describes her home as “its own little sanctuary,” where she can relax. The family enjoys a lot of time on the property – they take walks on the trails in the winter, go skating on a pond, and otherwise are able to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“We were fortunate during COVID because we had this property, and I think that my kids never really felt the impact of being confined to indoor space,” she says. “That’s always been an important part of my personal life, just enjoying time with friends and family in our rural setting.”
Souch and her husband have two teenaged children. Her son is just finishing high school, while her daughter has now completed her first year of high school. “My son is planning on going into an apprenticeship in the fall, and that will be following more in my husband’s pathway,” she says.
Part of a teacher’s role is providing guidance to his or her students. Advice that Souch offers her pupils is that there is a place in supply chain for everyone. There is an enormous breadth
of career opportunities, and she encourages her students to find an industry and niche they think they’ll enjoy, and to just go try it. That provides the experience students need to move into other areas of supply chain if they wish.

Supply chain also offers nearly unlimited chances to move across industries, Souch says, as well as opportunities for promotion within organizations. The need for people with supply chain skills is growing, and while in the past many have stumbled into the field accidently, more and more practitioners are making informed decisions to go into supply chain.

“It’s really about understanding the career pathways, and that’s a challenging conversation for incoming students to understand the scope of what they could potentially do,” Souch says. “Whether you’re a new graduate or somebody that’s more seasoned in the field, you have the skills that you need to be successful. If there’s that career move, I would encourage people to take advantage of that and leverage all their previous education and experience.”

Souch encourages supply chain professionals to look to the future while keeping in mind the recognition that the field has received recently. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the public now understands the importance of supply chain, as well as the impact the sector has not only on business, but also on the planet.

“The future lies with supply chain professionals and they’re really driving a lot of those business decisions and impact on people, planet, and profit – that’s going to be an important part that new and existing professionals have to contend with.”