Homegrown Talent

New institute trains supply chain workers for careers, not jobs.

Published in Dome - May 2016

Jessica Waters has her heart set on driving a forklift, perhaps at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The 23-year-old East Baltimore native has numerous relatives employed across the medical campus and hopes to join them. “I love Johns Hopkins,” she says. “I’ve seen what it’s done for my family.”

Under her teacher’s careful instructions, she climbs into the driver’s seat of a bright yellow forklift truck, disengages the parking brake and shifts the beast into reverse. The familiar, shrill beep-beep fills the warehouse, warning all in Waters’ path to stand back.

She and nine classmates are the first-ever students of the Supply Chain Institute, a job training partnership between Johns Hopkins and Baltimore City Community College. They’ll all take a turn on the forklift today, though not all share Waters’ enthusiasm for industrial machinery. Instead, they can choose to pursue other tracks the program offers, such as logistics and occupational safety.

The institute is located inside a flat-roofed, one-story structure at the intersection of Preston and North Wolfe streets, several blocks from the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus. Over eight weeks, 10 men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 spend six hours a day learning the complexities of the different disciplines within supply chain. At the end of the course, Johns Hopkins and other employers will interview the new graduates and hire some—or maybe all—of them.

The program was established for high school graduates interested in learning the ins and outs of large-scale shipping, receiving and distribution operations. Graduation from the institute is intended to serve as the first step on a career path, rather than mere training for an entry-level job.

Learning About the Supply System       

Keeping The Johns Hopkins Hospital supplied is a massive, round-the-clock challenge that requires experts in coordination, planning, warehousing and other specialties. Everything the hospital uses—supplies, equipment, food—comes to the 22-bay East Fayette Street loading dock on trucks from vendors and distributors around the country. Each step of the complicated process, from warehouse inventory management to ordering the supplies to quality assurance to distribution, falls to the supply chain team.

Jasmine Montgomery is eager to learn all aspects of this system. During the first week of the institute, she sits in the front row of the class, a few feet from the instructor. The 20-year-old native of Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood marked by civic unrest last year, understands that she’s landed an opportunity that can take her places.

Montgomery became interested in supply chain work during a holiday seasonal job last year at the Amazon.com distribution center in southeastern Baltimore. She worked on supply lines, scanning and screening holiday gifts as they rushed down the moving belt. Disappointed when her employment didn’t extend beyond the holiday season, Montgomery learned of the Supply Chain Institute during an online job search several months ago.

“I felt lucky to find a class in something I was interested in,” she says. “And there could be a job at the end of it.”

Desmond Jackson, director of patient accounts in Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Patient Financial Services Department, says the Supply Chain Institute idea was inspired by the HopkinsLocal initiative to hire more city residents from underserved neighborhoods like Montgomery’s.

“We have such a constant need for good employees in our supply chain,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to get folks trained and ready to go. But it wasn’t practical to start our own school for it.”

Ken Grant, The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s vice president of general services, says the supply chain affects everyone in the hospital. “The logistics side of supply chain plays a critical role in our ability to provide quality patient care,” he says. “The Supply Chain Institute will help ensure we have a well-trained pipeline of individuals who are prepared to help us accomplish this mission-critical task.”

Jackson initiated the conversations with the community college and thought both institutions might benefit from a collaboration to train supply chain workers. Each supplied instructors for the institute, with Johns Hopkins staffers handling the hospital-specific topics and community college faculty members teaching the rest of the program, such as “bridge” classes, which help students brush up on basic computer skills and other job readiness categories.

During one such class, Prince Frimpong, an expert on styles of learning, guides the students through a series of exercises. The class sits almost completely still, listening to quiz instructions through headphones, their eyes fixed on their computer screens while the instructor moves quietly from student to student, offering encouragement in his gentle West African accent.

“When I lecture, they get bored and don’t concentrate,” he says. “But when we do interactive work, they become very engaged.”

As students complete their online quizzes, the gray-on-gray cinderblock classroom is silent, except for computer mouse clicks and a muffled voice sneaking out of the headphones. Outside, an Amtrak train on elevated tracks rumbles by three or four times an hour, zooming passengers past nondescript buildings that once housed busy factories, stables and streetcar barns.

An Invitation to ‘Dream Big’

Student Deonte Henderson, 19, graduated last year from Forest Park High School. He has borrowed a family member’s car to get to this class from his Edmondson Village home.

“It’s a loaner, and I’m not the owner,” he jokes. “Get it? Loaner, not owner?”

Henderson is restless in the classroom. During quiet in-class study times, he stands up, bent over his desk, reading his textbook. “I want a job where I can work with my hands and move around,” he says, fiddling with the fastener on his bright orange quarter-zip sweatshirt. “I can’t sit down all day.”

He says he’s always wanted to work in a warehouse. “I tried to get a job at Amazon, but they didn’t, y’know, hit me back. Maybe they thought I was too young.”

He interned at the University of Maryland Medical Center during high school, working in the linen department. He enjoyed hospital work, he says, and likes to help people who need help. Now he is looking for his first job.

Montgomery, on the other hand, has found plenty of work since her 2013 graduation from Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts in Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood. In addition to her recent job at Amazon, she has worked at the National Aquarium and was an usher at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Asked where she thinks the supply chain course might lead, she pauses, considering the path ahead. “We’re not talking about just some job at the Inner Harbor,” Montgomery says, her eyes lighting up. “This could be a career that could take you a long way from that.

 “I’m going to dream big,” she smiles. “How about distribution manager?”

Both Jessica Waters and Darien Porter were hired by the Johns Hopkins Hospital shortly after they graduated from the Supply Chain Institute.