In less than two months, several hundred college graduates will leave the campuses of some of the leading universities in the United States with a very valuable tool: a degree in industrial distribution.

With placement rates for these graduates often topping 80 percent, it's a tool that will help them overcome the job-hunting obstacles in today's still-sluggish economy that will confront their fellow college grads in many other fields.

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, 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 has 150 students. Toppen expects to have 250 students by next year.

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.

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 current recession.

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. Dr. 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 job 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.

“We go out in the mall and recruit. I train students with the skills they will need to work an industrial show — like why it's important not to let people walk past your booth without stopping, and how to make eye contact with people.

“My students are all required to wear suits and ties to class. Guys also can't wear earrings. They can't have long hair. We are training professionals. They have to commit to this before I let them in the program. We have only lost one student because of that.”

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 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 format. “I did the equivalent of 4,000 pages of material,” he says.

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, Clarkson University and Michigan State 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.”

INDUSTRIAL DISTRIBUTION PROGRAMS

These universities and colleges offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in industrial distribution, certificates in this area of study or strong concentrations in industrial distribution. For more information on industrial distribution programs at U.S. universities, check out these links to the Web sites of the Industrial Distributors Association, Atlanta, and the National Electronics Distributors Association, Alpharetta, Ga.: www.ida-assoc.org/aboutida/univ-pro.asp, and www.nedafoundation.org/career/college.html. These resources were invaluable in compiling this listing.

Central Washington University
Lynnwood, Wash.
Professor David Bell, certificate program director
Phone: (425) 640-1574
E-mail: belld@cwu.edu
Web site: www.cwu.edu/~sbe

Clarkson University
Potsdam, N.Y.
Professor Farzad Mahmoodi
Phone: (315) 268-4281
E-mail: mahmoodi@clarkson.edu
Web site: www.clarkson.edu/business/gsc/index.htmllled in degree program

East Carolina University
Greenville, N.C.
James Toppen, Ph. D.
Phone: (252) 328-2323
E-mail: toppenj@mail.ecu.edu
Web site: www.sit.ecu.edu/itec/

Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Mich.
Phone: (734) 487-0354
Web site: http://cot.emich.edu

Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Keely Croxton, professor
Phone: (614) 292-6610
E-mail: croxton@cob.osu.edu
Web site: fisher.osu.edu/logistics/

Purdue University
West Lafayette, Ind.
Dr. Kathryne Newton, associate professor of industrial technology
Phone: (765) 494-6080
E-mail: kanewton@tech.purdue.edu
Web site: http://tech.purdue.edu/it/

Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
Ben Zoghi, program coordinator
Phone: (979) 845-4972
E-mail: zoghi@entc.tamu.edu
Web site: http://etidweb.tamu.edu

University of Alabama @ Birmingham
Birmingham, Ala.
Jay A. Smith, program coordinator
Phone: (205) 934-8989
E-mail: idpro@uab.edu
Web site: www.uab.edu

University of Houston
Industrial Distribution Program Houston, Texas
Phone: (713) 743-4114
E-mail: :jdlloyd@central.uh.edu
Web site: www.tech.uh.edu/itec/id

University of Illinois
Urbana, Ill.
William J. Qualls, director
(217) 265-0794
E-mail: wqualls@uiuc.edu
Web site: www.cba.uiuc.edu/idm

University of Nebraska @ Kearney
Kearney, Neb.
Dr. Don Envick, coordinator of industrial distribution program
Phone: (308) 865-8287
E-mail: envickd@unk.edu
Web site: www.unk.edu/acad/itec/idhome.html

University of Southern California Marshall School of Business
Los Angeles, Calif.
Professor S. Rajagopalan
Phone: (213) 740-0172
Web site: www.marshall.usc.edu

University of Wisconsin/Madison
Madison, Wis.
John R. Nevin, executive director
Phone: (608) 262-8912
Web site: www.bus.wisc.edu/grainger/
E-mail: jnevin@bus.wisc.edu