Career Overview: Operations

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Operations consists of all the activities that contribute directly to a company's main line(s) of business.

Consider a company like Gap, which manufactures and sells clothing in its own stores. Operations for Gap would include everything from the manufacturing of Gap clothing, to the shipment of that clothing to Gap's retail stores, to the systems the company uses to track clothing that's sold at regular prices, at sale prices, returned by the customer, and so on. It would also include the fulfillment of orders placed on the company's website, and the customer service staff that helps customers with problems, complaints, or other issues.

People in operations work to make sure their employers' businesses run smoothly, effectively, and professionally. This includes everyone from management to assembly line workers, mailroom workers, and the guys loading and unloading trucks in manufacturing and retail company distribution centers. Office managers, purchasing managers, supply chain managers, manufacturing process consultants, brokerage firm back-office employees (who make sure the securities transactions entered into by the firm's traders, salespeople, and brokers are completed in a timely and accurate manner)-all of these are operations professionals.

Operations work exists in most companies, but there are some industries that are operations-intensive and thus provide more operations opportunities than other industries. These are manufacturing, transportation, banking, financial services, retail, telecommunications, and health care.

If you're the type of person who knows how to get things done and isn't afraid to work outside the spotlight, a career in operations may be for you. Operations professionals understand that the little pieces create the big corporate picture. They work in the trenches, making sure each area of a company functions as it should.

What You'll Do
The operations team creates the infrastructure of a company. Operations employees help determine where an organization should be based, its employment policies, accounting practices, distribution channels, and much more. While individual departments determine how corporate procedures are implemented, operations makes sure they are designed optimally in the first place.

The chief operations officer (COO) is a senior member in most organizations. The COO works with the CEO and company president to determine the company's vision. Their ideas are filtered down through the rest of the company.

Senior operations managers determine where an organization is based, what its facilities will look like, which vendors to use, and how the hiring policy will be implemented. Once the key decisions are made, lower-level operations personnel carry them out. If a problem exists, operations personnel will be the first to hear about it. They work to find a solution, and then set about fixing the problem.

While operations is a key component of any successful company, it is back-end work. Most support functions fall under operations' control. Such functions include customer service, logistics, production, maintenance, and administration. Sometimes, depending on the size and scope of an organization, operations will also include sales, accounting, programming, and marketing. The goal of the operations department is to find solutions to problems before they affect the bottom line.

Who Does Well
Anyone considering a career in operations should have the ability to see the big picture. Since problems often show up in the most unexpected places, you need to see beyond your current task. Most operations departments are team environments. There may be many employees doing virtually the same tasks. Daily meetings may be required to set up group goals and assignments.

For most careers in the field, operations personnel should also be highly analytical, detail-oriented, and able to work with individuals throughout an organization. Remember, this is support work. You should be prepared to serve the needs of the rest of the organization.


While you can get a customer service job with little experience, most operations positions require a four-year degree and at least some industry background. Most universities offer degrees in operations management. But a degree in business can be just as good, depending on whether you want a more or less technical career in operations.

If you are interested in climbing the corporate ladder, you should consider getting an advanced degree.

Most VPs and COOs have an MBA, and many have a PhD. Without such degrees, promotions to higher levels will take longer. It may also be more difficult to land a job at another organization.

To be promoted, an individual must prove that she can be a good supervisor, get a job done right the first time, manage all aspects of a project, and keep it within budget parameters. A detail-oriented personality, strong analytical skills, and the ability to thrive in a team environment are necessities.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities in operations are expected to grow at about the same rate as the average for all occupations in coming years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Operations is a broad area, though, and some in the field will have much better prospects than others. Those in expanding industries such as high tech may enjoy more opportunities than those in more mature industries, such as manufacturing. Also, in some career areas, technology advances will lessen the demand for operations professionals.

Career Tracks

The operations department is responsible for ensuring a company operates as efficiently and economically as possible. Exactly which functions it controls depends on the size and structure of the organization.

Following are common operations-related positions:

Facilities Coordinator
Facilities coordinators are responsible for the physical environment of an organization and how a building's design, layout, furniture, and other equipment affect the efficiency and profitability of the business that uses them. The facilities coordinator buys office furniture and supplies, determines when more space is needed, selects appropriate vendors, and is responsible for the facilities budget. A business management background and keen understanding of how working environments affect employee productivity are prerequisites for the job.

Procurement Analyst/Purchasing Manager
Purchasing managers oversee purchasing operations for an organization. Junior roles, such as procurement analysts, typically focus on a single aspect of procurement and purchasing. For instance, a procurement analyst might work primarily on analyzing historical purchasing costs for materials, forecasting future costs, or finding prospective vendors. In large organizations, purchasing is a large and strategic endeavor. Purchasing involves identifying suppliers from which to source materials, selecting those suppliers, negotiating supply contracts, developing the business frameworks for those contracts, and managing suppliers. Purchasing managers work with materials managers and manufacturing departments to identify the material needs for the organization. Moreover, purchasing managers develop metrics on which to base management of procurement costs, delivery times, service levels, and quality.

Purchasing managers need top negotiation and communication skills.

Logistics Analyst
Analysts and managers in this field work on a wide range of logistics functions, including warehouse and distribution operations, forecasting, planning, logistics information systems, customer service, and purchasing. Analyst roles might deal with an area within the logistics function, while senior roles, such as manager or director, involve overseeing a team of analysts. Managers negotiate and contract with suppliers and carriers, develop supply chain metrics and strategy, and oversee day-to-day management of logistics functions. Analysts devote much of their days to problem solving, forecasting, and ensuring that operations are running within determined metrics.

Process Engineer
Process engineers typically analyze processes within any number of industries-manufacturing, distribution and transportation, or retail-and develop improved processes that make better, safer use of labor, materials, energy, and other resources. For instance, a process engineer in a distribution center might work to improve outbound and inbound traffic processes or invoice handling. In a manufacturing environment he might develop a better method for handling raw materials. Additionally, he might develop the metrics used to manage the processes once they've been improved.

Transportation Manager
Transportation managers typically work under logistics managers to oversee the inbound and outbound traffic of materials and finished products from a distribution center. Transportation managers will often manage carriers, transportation costs within specified metrics, third-party transportation providers, and freight bill presentation; negotiate contracts; and ensure that freight moves smoothly across international borders.

Warehouse Operations Manager
The warehouse operations manager typically works in the retail, distribution, and transportation industries. Warehousing managers find among their responsibilities optimizing/managing placement of inventory within the warehouse, ensuring that inventory levels are accurate, and overall management of warehouse personnel. Managing warehouse personnel entails oversight of supervisors and workers, hiring workers and managing worker performance, and ensuring that the warehouse meets regulatory safety requirements.

Customer Service Manager
The customer service manager leads teams of customer service representatives in resolving issues and maintaining high customer satisfaction. The role involves ensuring that contractual support representatives meet contractual service levels, defining those service levels, developing support center processes, and working with other functional areas to control service costs while maintaining customer satisfaction.

Product Development Manager
A product development manager might determine scientific and technical goals within broad outlines provided by top management. Her program might include the redesign of a product, improvements in manufacturing processes, or development of a new product offering. She might make detailed plans for the accomplishment of these goals. For example, working with her staff, she may develop the overall concepts of a new product or identify technical problems standing in the way of project completion.

Manufacturing Engineer
Manufacturing engineers are the people that make manufacturing happen-they take a product design and figure out how that product will be manufactured. They define, design, and improve the machinery and low-level processes by which products are created. The role is a big one. The manufacturing engineer develops processes, identifies and prioritizes improvement opportunities, and executes those improvements. He is well versed in process technologies, automation equipment, operations methodologies, statistical controls, and affiliated technologies and methodologies. He documents changes in processes, communicates those changes, and oversees the implementation of those processes. He typically works with small teams in the manufacturing area and is considered the technical resource in a plant.

Logistics Engineer
A business needs to plan how work orders will be distributed throughout its organization. The logistics engineer is the person primarily responsible for such planning. She is interested in improving the efficiency and accuracy of order fulfillment, and will map out the process from beginning to end, always on the lookout for possible improvements. This is a detail-oriented position that requires strong problem-solving skills and an in-depth analysis of business processes.

Operations Analyst
An operations analyst studies how the current operations infrastructure is working. These folks attempt to find areas where the system breaks down, and then find ways to improve it. Strategies may include changing the work environment or employment policies, using different vendors, or transforming work processes. There is a great deal of administrative work involved. This position answers to the operations manager.

Operations Manager
The operations manager or director watches over his department, the size and scope of which depends on the organization involved; a large company may have several operations managers. Their job is to determine how the processes in their departments should be implemented and what duties need to be performed. An operations manager hires and manages lower-level staff, selects the vendors, completes departmental financial analyses, and determines the budget. The operations manager reports to the VP of operations or chief operations officer (COO).

Chief Operations Officer (COO)
One of the senior managers in any business organization, the chief operations officer is responsible for making sure that the entire back end of an organization operates as efficiently as possible. Other senior managers in operations roles report to the COO.

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