Transforming Supply Chains at Warp Speed: High-Stakes COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

After months of anticipation, we all watched the first trucks leave the Pfizer distribution center in Portage, Michigan transporting the coronavirus vaccine to all parts of the country in carefully packed and environmentally monitored boxes under U.S. Marshall escort. We could not help but wonder how we could be sure there would not be a supply chain failure, and, if there was, would we know.

We listened to FedEx, UPS and Boyle Transportation executives talk about their unique security and safety measures without much insight into the details for competitive reasons. At the same time, skeptics espoused concerns about the safe transportation of a vaccine that requires storage of -100°F.

As the vaccine distribution begins, we anticipate there will be missteps — probably some big, and those will be well-publicized, but once we emerge from the pandemic, we will be left with capabilities that were developed and proven in months that would otherwise have taken years.

If ever there was the motivation for competing organizations to work together to optimize a supply chain while still preserving their independence and competitive advantage, it is now. We predict that they will do it at warp speed and that we will see fundamental changes in the way that technology is deployed to transparently manage supply chains.

Let’s look at some of the unique challenges of this supply chain.

  • The scale in the U.S. is unheard of and the vaccine is a valuable commodity that needs enhanced security throughout the supply chain.
  • There are many links in the chain – from trucks and logistics, all the way to local delivery vehicles and health care facilities – and no room for error. A failure anywhere puts lives at risk.
  • This chain is not owned or governed by one organization; it is supported by a diverse ecosystem across private and public entities – with varying levels of technology sophistication – that are unaccustomed to working together and exchanging mission-critical information.
  • The federal government has spent months planning for efficient distribution, but ultimately states and municipalities need to plan for and fund the “last mile”. This is bound to be done inconsistently.
  • Environmental factors, such as winter storms, will disrupt distribution and deliveries will need to be dynamically rerouted.

To address these challenges, supply chain participants will need to share accurate data in order to safely and effectively deliver the highest number of doses possible. While the cross-enterprise workflow technology exists, it is unproven even at modest scale. Blockchain has shown the potential to manage data reliably across a decentralized network, and IoT linked with smart contracts can track events as they occur. Add in machine learning and artificial intelligence and you can predict the bottlenecks, identify shrinkage and dynamically reroute based on defined protocols. And there are several software platforms that link disparate systems together to share, manage and verify data across platforms.

As we’ve extensively written at DSCI, the challenge of managing a cross-enterprise ecosystem is less about the technology and all about the governance.

Companies intuitively understand that cross-enterprise enabling technology has business advantages but have been unable to quantify the business case and have been reluctant to deal with the governance and competitive complexities. What we are witnessing today, with the distribution of vaccines, is disruptive change forcing companies to deal with these complexities in real-time. The recognition of the inherit value of cross-enterprise visibility and data exchange will fundamentally alter supply chains in 2021 and beyond.

-Shawn Muma, Technology Research Leader, CGE’s Digital Supply Chain Institute

Financial Insecurity is a Major Issue for Americans: Healthcare Costs are a Strong Contributing Factor

During 2020, millions of Americans became financially insecure as the pandemic accelerated business closures and layoffs. According to a July 2020 study on the U.S. workforce from Aflac, at least 36% of employees lost a job or income and 13% lost healthcare benefits as employers were forced to eliminate jobs or reduce compensation.

With business closures and layoffs, businesses are struggling to keep afloat, and families are suffering. Finding a way forward for both individuals and businesses will be of great importance in the new year as we continue to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

One area that must be addressed if we are to successfully mitigate financial insecurity is the issue of healthcare costs. Aflac’s 2020 annual Workforces Report found that financial insecurity is a major issue for Americans and healthcare costs are a strong contributing factor.

Since major medical insurance is not designed to cover all expenses, employees are worried about their ability to pay for uncovered medical expenses, as well as other non-medical expenses from a health emergency and the impact these costs will have on their financial well-being both today and in their future. We support Congress’ efforts to address surprise medical billing as key to helping address financial insecurity, but the issues don’t stop there.

This year, more than half the employees surveyed faced significant health emergencies not covered by major medical insurance. As a result, a small but growing number of employees have filed for bankruptcy, missed mortgage and car payments, and are saving less for retirement.

More Americans are also taking on a second job in the gig economy just to pay for medical expenses.  38% of employees surveyed said they are now participating in the gig economy specifically to pay for healthcare benefits and related medical expenses. That’s an increase of 13% over 2019.

Uncovered medical expenses have also led more than a third of employees to delay a major life milestone such as putting off buying a car, buying a home, pursuing higher education, getting married and even starting a family.

This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the financial security of individuals, families and communities and the uncertainty and anxiety caused by healthcare costs is adding to the financial and mental stress.

COVID-19 has not only raised awareness of the financial insecurity facing millions of Americans, but it has created an urgency to act to restore household and community health. State and local governments, the federal government and businesses are taking important steps to mitigate financial harm. We need to ensure that this important work doesn’t end with the pandemic.

Finding ways to decrease financial instability, such as addressing the cost of healthcare and the needs of those most impacted, including women and minorities, will play a critical role.

– Brad Knox, Senior Vice President and Counsel, Aflac Federal Relations

2020 Trends and the Future of Higher Education

On Monday, December 14, Story Partners spoke with Doug Shapiro, Ph.D., Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about the state of higher education amid the pandemic, specifically the effect of the pandemic on college access for students, and the future of higher education in 2021 and beyond.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center regularly publishes research on education, workforce, and learner success to benefit and better inform the education community, policymakers, business leaders, and other community leaders. The research uses current data from college and university registrars to offer objective data and insights about student enrollment, mobility, completion, and more.

What were the main research findings of how college enrollment has been impacted by the pandemic this year? What does the research mean for K12, higher education and society as a whole?

The main takeaways from the High School Benchmarks With a COVID-19 Special Analysis were the disparity between advantaged and less advantaged students in terms of their ability to access college and the dramatic changes in college enrollment rates for students.

There have been around 20% fewer high school graduates going to college this year, even though there has been no decline in the number of students graduating from high school this past June. While the pandemic did not affect students’ ability to finish their high school diplomas last spring, far fewer of them were able to go to college, particularly for students from low-income and minority high schools who would ordinarily have gone to community colleges.

The disparity has huge implications for the future of higher education and the future lives of so many students. There is a risk of a lost generation in terms of educational attainment and skill development, potential future employability and productivity, and economic mobility and equity in our society. As a society, we will have to do a tremendous amount of work to make sure that the class of 2020 can get back on track. We also have a considerable amount of work to do, now that we know the risk, to make sure that it does not happen again for the class of 2021.

What actions can higher education institutions take in 2021 and in the future to address those concerns?

A lot of the actions will need to take place on the high school side. Students generally receive support from high school counselors and community organizations to help them understand their college options and assist with the application and financial aid processes. We have seen huge drops in the FAFSA completion and college application numbers this year. High schools will have to do double their work next year, and we have to do all we can to help the high schools build the capacity to do that — to keep next year’s students on track for post-secondary education, as well as to help the 2020 students to get back on track.

There’s also work that needs to be done to support community colleges. There are truly staggering declines in the number of students overall, particularly the number of Black, Indigenous and Latinx students enrolling and staying in community colleges. These institutions are the main access points for many disadvantaged students into higher education; the decline in the number of students will reverberate and continue for years as colleges will feel the absence of the freshmen, returning adults and continuing students who didn’t attend this year.

As 2020 comes to an end and we look ahead to the new year, what research do you have planned to address these ongoing issues?

We must continue to provide real data and current and timely analysis of those data so that policymakers and practitioners can work from those reports. We plan to continue the pace of reporting and the range of reporting that we did this past fall. We will continue our monthly reports to provide regular updates on total enrollments of new students, returning students and adults coming out of the workforce, and the transfer behaviors of students. Additionally, we will continue to report on persistence and retention for students already in the higher education system, including students’ ability to stay full time vs. moving to part time.

How can the higher education field use the Research Center’s data to help students chart pathways to ensure they receive an education that will allow them to compete in an evolving workforce after graduation?

This has been a challenge for higher education for years and it’s only going to get harder. Many schools are employing innovative methods and technologies to help make this easier for students. Many have succeeded in using predictive analytics to understand earlier when students are experiencing difficulties or at risk and finding ways to intervene and keep them on track. I think those efforts, primarily at the institution level, need to be redoubled and the institutions who aren’t doing enough of it should seek opportunities to learn from the ones who are doing the best.

I also think there has to be a huge re-dedication from society and policymakers to support students financially, in their ability to afford higher education. That comes not just from state and federal financial aid but also state support for institutions. In particular, I think the community colleges are at considerable risk because of the decline in state budgets due to the recession and compounded by their declines in enrollments. We need a stronger sense of purpose to reinvest and make sure that these institutions survive.


Issues that Shaped our Year and our Country’s Future

Throughout the year, we have faced some of the biggest challenges since our nation’s founding. The COVID-19 pandemic and the significance of the disruptions resulting from the pandemic, as well as the rise in political and social tensions, have shaped our year and will continue to impact our country’s future.

As we look ahead to the new year and reflect on the challenges of 2020, I am hopeful for the new opportunities that will unfold in 2021. No doubt, this was a difficult year for everyone. In addition to the spread of the coronavirus and the uncertainty around it, we also saw tensions rise throughout the country due to racial strife, economic uncertainty and a divisive political election season. Issues stemming from racial injustice and police brutality penetrated our social conscious and may have finally created a momentum to achieve real change. 2021 provides a new opportunity to bridge the divide within our country and come together to advance opportunities to help our economy, businesses and workforce recover, and create an even brighter future.

Starting January, the new Administration and Congress will be faced with restarting an American economy that is in shambles. Businesses are still struggling and families are suffering from forced business closures and layoffs. With the potential for new shutdowns in the coming winter months and economic challenges that will continue at least into the summer of 2021, the economy and our workforce will be one of the top challenges demanding attention in the new year. Economic stimulus and pro-business legislative initiatives will be of priority to policymakers in 2021. As such, there will be opportunities to advance new policy initiatives, such as those that support emerging industries that can provide economic growth and create new jobs.

Technology will also continue to be at the forefront. During the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime, American industries were forced to make a digital shift. From the accelerated adoption of digital supply chains, e-commerce and the use of technology in healthcare, to a shift to remote/virtual learning within our education system, all industries have adapted and changed the way they operate. This digital shift has accelerated the adoption of new technologies. For example, the use of automation has increased as businesses deal with social distancing requirements. The New York Times reported that the grocery industry is increasingly relying on automation and robotics to adapt to operating in the pandemic, such as through the use of automated floor cleaners and inventory robots. As we look ahead, the accelerated adoption of technology and innovation will continue to be an opportunity to transform the future of our businesses and organizations and spark further innovations within the technology industry.

From the global pandemic and nationwide shutdowns, to a much-overdue racial justice movement, we are poised to re-shape our nation’s future. In this edition of Inside Story, we will explore some of the biggest issues in 2020 that will continue to impact the future of American businesses, industries, and our lives in the new year and beyond.

Gloria Story Dittus, Chairman, Story Partners

Utilities: Our Country’s Powerline

Stable, reliable and cost-effective energy prices are key factors that spur economic growth across the nation. Over the years, economic growth has boomed in some regions of the country in large part because of low-cost, reliable electricity provided by the local utility company. That’s why utility companies play a major role in the economic development of American communities. They are strategic partners that help promote job creation and drive local economic development.

This effort happens for a number of reasons, but key among them is the fact that communities and businesses depend on reliable and cost-effective energy to support their day-to-day operations. As manufacturers consider building new or expanding existing manufacturing facilities, energy costs are a critical consideration. Local energy suppliers provide valuable resources to help manufacturers make those important investment and resource allocation decisions.

Additionally, utility companies are not only strategic business partners, but also community partners investing in organizations, schools, and sponsoring other philanthropic activities that further contribute to the health and vitality of a regional economy.

This month, we are examining the impact utilities are having in growing local and state economies. We will hear from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, that was recently honored by Site Selection Magazine for its success in business attraction and retention. We’ll also hear from the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, which is an organization established with strong support from utilities to advance economic development efforts. We will also share perspectives from the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute on how utilities play a vital part in creating a stronger and more competitive business environment for all.

Gloria Story Dittus, Chairman, Story Partners