Most agree the supply chain is integral to our economy. But what, exactly, comprises the U.S. supply chain economy?

Ask a random sampling of 10 people on the street whether or not the supply chain is an integral part of the U.S. economy, and, more than likely, you’ll get at least 8 affirmative responses. But ask that same random sampling to talk in detail about the supply chain economy, the jobs it contains, and how it pertains to innovation, and you’ll most likely hear crickets.

While most Americans recognize the value of the supply chain, the details remain fuzzy. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, economists Mercedes Delgado and Karen Mills attempt to clear things up. They identify the industries that comprise the supply chain economy, quantify the number and quality of jobs it contains, and assess how much it matters for innovation. Here’s a summary of their findings.

What is the supply chain today?

First off, Delgado and Mills define the nature and scope of the supply chain industry, making the key distinction that supply chain industries are B2B, meaning that they sell to businesses and the government, rather than B2C, or business-to-consumer.

Industries that comprise the supply chain include traditional suppliers, like “metal stampers or plastic injection molders — businesses that manufacture parts to be used in a final good.” The authors, however, point out that thinking of the supply chain purely as a manufacturing sector is a flawed model.

In fact, “only 10% of employment in the [U.S. supply chain] economy is in manufacturing, and 90% is in services.” Jobs in this 90% include “many different labor occupations, from operation managers, to computer programmers, to truck drivers.”

Delgado and Mills take their analysis a step further, identifying the subcategory of “supply chain traded services – i.e., those that are sold across regions like engineering, design, software publishing, cloud computing, and logistics services.”

It’s worth noting that supply chain traded services have the highest wages in the supply chain economy, averaging at $80,800 annually — 3 times higher than traditional “service” jobs.

The U.S. supply chain accounts for 37% of domestic jobs, employing some 44 million people at “significantly higher than average wages.” Click To Tweet

The U.S. supply chain accounts for 37% of domestic jobs, employing some 44 million people at “significantly higher than average wages.” The supply chain also accounts for a high proportion of the innovative activity in the economy as a whole, with STEM jobs, “a proxy for innovation potential,” at “almost five times higher in the supply chain economy than in the B2C economy.”

The authors point out that the prevalence of higher-paying jobs and innovation is a result of the fact that “supply chain industries have downstream linkages to multiple industries, which allows the innovations they create to cascade and diffuse across the economy, potentially increasing the value of those innovations.”

Policy recommendations

After defining and discussing the modern U.S. supply chain economy, Delgado and Mills move toward policy implications.

“Our supply chain economy framework leads to a more optimistic view of the economy,” they write. “If we were to focus on supporting supply chain services, particularly those in traded industries, the result might be more innovation and more well-paying jobs in the United States.”

They make three key recommendations for national economic policy, focused on improving suppliers’ access to skilled labor, buyers, and capital:

  • Invest in skilled labor.
  • Support regional industry clusters.
  • Ensure that suppliers have access to capital.

The bottom line: the supply chain industry is robust and dynamic, with “a crucial role in driving innovation and creating well-paying jobs.”

The idea of “bringing manufacturing back” is stale and reactionary. Delgado and Mills instead suggest that “we must shift our policy solutions to focus on cultivating the supply chain service jobs that will drive America’s economy forward.”

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