Logistics program breathes life into state transportation
Transportation in Alaska is a lot more than just planes, trains and automobiles.
Add cargo ships, pipelines, ferries and any number of other modes of movement and you’ve got a complex network — a logistical nightmare to some.
To University of Alaska Anchorage Professor Darren Prokop, it’s a network where challenge meets opportunity.
“The state of Alaska either thrives or declines on the basis of how it handles its logistics and supply chain management,” he likes to say.
Prokop is the face of UAA’s Logistics Department. He has been with the department nearly since its inception in 1999.
The department has grown into a suite of programs offering everything from undergraduate certificates to a master’s degree in global supply chain management. It is the only initiative at the university to offer classes from the high school to the graduate level, Prokop said.
Alaska’s unique challenges of distance — from the Lower 48 and across the state — sparse population, environment, and climate fit into his definition of logistics and what the program emphasizes.
Logistics is “the art and science of dealing with time, space and location,” he often says.
He likens supply chain management to a body’s skeleton, the base of the operation, while logistics is the blood and oxygen that give it life. It’s a science field because data can be measured and analyzed, and an art because it’s constantly improved in previously unforeseen ways, he said.
No matter what specific field of business someone is in, logistics and supply chain management is a discipline they should be familiar with, Prokop emphasizes, because it affects every aspect of business.
UAA Global Logistics Association President Taylor Mitchell agrees.
“It’s a lot more than just getting 50 widgets to somewhere,” Mitchell said. “It’s really a wide open field.”
The courses reflect that. Upper class undergraduate students take courses in purchasing, materials management, marketing and international logistics.
They are also required to work a 225-hour paid internship.
“It gives us the feedback to see whether or not their classroom tools make sense on the job,” Prokop said.
The individual classes are small, typically about 20 students. At any time there are only about 50 students in the overall program, he said.
The state’s complex of supply chains and transportation affords students the opportunity to see first hand how the shipping web works. Students touring the Port of Anchorage witness first-hand the intricacies of managing a shipment of construction materials headed for a North Slope construction site that came on a Horizon Lines containership and are hauled to Fairbanks by the Alaska Railroad.
From there the goods are sent up the Dalton Highway behind a semi-truck and reach their final well pad destination via ice road.
Members of the student club also get more chances to absorb problem-solving outside the classroom. Mitchell said the club tries to plan at least one field tour a month.
“You get the academic exposure in class and the club provides how-to logistics in the real world,” she said.
Mitchell, a Lynden International employee, has her bachelor’s in global logistics and supply chain management and is working on a global supply chain management master’s.
She said the tours also serve to expose students to the job opportunities available to them.
Club vice president Andy Watts, working on an associate’s degree, said it helps students immensely just to get out and “get our faces recognized” in the industry.
The club is holding a public panel discussion March 6 on campus featuring leaders from the Port of Anchorage, Alaska Railroad and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. It’s the first such event the club has put on and Watts said the goal is to fill every one of the 130 seats available in the lecture all.
“It’s a really big deal for us as a club,” Mitchell said.
Further, Prokop’s students regularly have the opportunity to hear from and question industry leaders who could well be a boss of theirs someday soon.
A glance at a syllabus from one of his senior level last fall semester shows nine guest lecturers from the likes of ConocoPhillips, FedEx, Naniq Global Logistics and Alaska Communications.
Linda Leary, one Prokop’s guests, is a past vice president of sales at Alaska Communications, a founding member and former president of Carlile Transportation Systems and one of his former students. Leary graduated from UAA in 2004 with a global supply chain management master’s from a program Prokop is particularly proud of.
“It’s designed for those with upper management and executive aspirations,” he said.
When she enrolled Leary had been in the transportation business for 20 years, but wanted to expand her knowledge base outside of business in Alaska, she said.
“(Prokop) tries to bring in a broader, more global perspective to everything, which is really good for Alaskans to have,” Leary said.
It’s hard to talk to him for more than a few minutes without hearing about the state’s global position — less than 10 hours from 90 percent of the industrialized world — and the business opportunities the location provides.
A big positive of the master’s program for Leary was that she was able to take courses at UAA while living in Seattle, and not remotely. Classes meet one weekend a month for 20 months, 12 hours on Saturdays and eight hours on Sundays, with lunch and dinner catered.
Leary was able to fly to Anchorage once a month for school, as a few other students have done, and not have it affect her work schedule.
Prokop’s fervor for the field is undeniable, and helpful when pushing through a three-hour class, Mitchell said.
“He’s very infectious and the way he’s always so excited makes it enjoyable to go to class,” she said.
Leary added, “He’s very smart and very enthusiastic and very curious, which makes it fun.”
To Prokop, Alaska is an ideal lab for his field of research and he’s always looking for businesses with problems for his students to solve.
“We are a very interesting mix of both domestic and international trade flows that present very interesting opportunities and challenges in logistics,” he said. “For all those reasons it makes sense to do these courses here. This is an area that’s ripe for academic research.”
He’s not likely to stop.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].