Get great opportunities in the purchasing and supply management profession

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Demand outstripping supply is a common concern when it comes to buying in goods and services, but increasingly this phrase is also being applied to the recruitment of highly skilled and talented purchasing professionals.

The purchasing and supply management profession is continuing to grow and expand its influence. This in turn has led to increased recognition of a career that's going places, with a growing number of candidates vying for the top jobs. There have always been opportunities for good purchasers, but following a marked swing from a supplier-controlled industry to one that is increasingly purchasing led, employers are finding that the number of talented purchasing and supply staff available cannot satisfy the increased demand for quality individuals.

School-leavers route

Some may choose to enter a career in purchasing straight from school, although this will obviously mean starting at a junior level and learning on the job. There are no requisite subjects to study at school to assist with this career choice, although business studies and economics may be of use. Many individuals at this level will study for the professional qualification in purchasing provided by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS). The qualification structure starts at level 2 - the introductory certificate in purchasing and supply - which is equivalent to GCSE level and would be the most appropriate entry point for school leavers.

The graduate route

Although there are a variety of routes into purchasing, these days the majority of people are opting for an educational element to help support their career. Employers are looking for high-calibre graduates, often with either a specialist purchasing and supply degree or a more general business degree. Once in position, many will find that their employer will encourage to them to sit the CIPS graduate diploma: a degree-level professional qualification. For those who have studied business-related degrees, there may be some exemptions from the CIPS qualification, but this will be assessed on application.

A range of universities and colleges offer both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in purchasing and supply management that are accredited by CIPS. Upon completion of those degrees, and once the individual has gained three years of work experience, they will be offered full membership of the institute (known as MCIPS).

Understanding CIPS qualifications

The CIPS qualification ladder consists of graduated steps, which link together in a cohesive way. The ladder offers something for everyone, whether you've just entered the profession or are operating at a strategic level. The CIPS qualifications are regulated by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority (QCA), and fit within the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The ladder incorporates six levels of qualification and therefore extends from NQF level 2 to NQF level 7. Each level is recognised as an award in its own right.

Levels 4, 5 and 6 (together with three years of relevant work experience) make up the graduate diploma, ultimately leading to MCIPS status. Incorporated into the qualifications is an understanding of generic business competencies, which cover a broad base of subjects such as effective negotiation, finance, governance and compliance, and other skills such as personal effectiveness.

It is possible to obtain exemption from some subjects depending on your previous academic record and work experience. You can study or be exempt from levels 4 and 5 but all students have to study level 6.

There are various methods of studying for the graduate diploma, including evening classes, distance learning through correspondence courses, and a self-study programme using the CIPS course books. CIPS also offers a flexible learning scheme to support self-study programmes. An alternative is modular training offered by CIPS, which consists of a series of intensive tutorial days. Examinations are held each May and November.

NVQs and SVQs

Details of N/SVQs in procurement are available from awarding bodies Edexcel in England and Wales ( www.edexcel.org.uk) and the Scottish Qualifications Authority ( www.sqa.org.uk).

Choice and variety

One of the attractions of a career in purchasing and supply management is the choice it offers in terms of the variety of sectors and roles available. Nearly every sector, from finance to manufacturing and charity to local government, has a purchasing and supply chain element, and needs an expert team in place to manage it if it is to run its organisation successfully. The diverse range of sectors and industries means that a purchaser can be buying anything from manufacturing components to helicopters, to travel and TV advertising space.

The pressures and demands within the job will vary between sectors. Although some of the core skills needed to work in purchasing will not differ, each sector will be faced with its own specific issues and will need different kinds of specialists in place.

Core skills

Understanding what core skills are required in your chosen profession will help you choose more wisely, as long as you are honest with yourself. If you pick a career choice that is well matched to your personality and strengths, then the chances of you having successful and happy career are far greater.

Purchasing has some obvious core skills, some of which can be learnt in a textbook, while others are what we refer to as "soft skills", which are a reflection of an individual's personal skills. Unfortunately, purchasing isn't as simple as enjoying spending money and getting a buzz out of shopping, although I'm sure they help!

A consequence of the shift in the UK from a manufacturing focus towards a much more service-orientated climate is that purchasing has had to adapt. In years gone by, the purchasing department was seen as the team that bought the stationery and the widgets, and everything tended to be driven by price. Relationships with suppliers were much more adversarial and purchasing tended to work in a much more isolated manner.

Nowadays, purchasing has evolved and professionals can find themselves involved in the buying of many more high-level strategic items. Marketing services, human resources or IT are just a few of the areas where purchasing is having increasing influence.

Interpersonal skills - are you a people person? A close relationship with internal customers means that strong interpersonal skills are crucial when considering a career in purchasing. Managing relationships, whether they are with internal customers or external suppliers, is at the heart of purchasing. Central to the purchaser's role is the ability to listen, persuade, communicate effectively and network.

Being successful in purchasing means you will be able to demonstrate that you can add real value to the organisation. Internally, you will only demonstrate that you are able to add that value when strong relationships are in place. This implies recognition between colleagues that you each have specific skills and knowledge, and that when put together, they can work in favour of all concerned. It's about teamwork.

Negotiation - do you ever haggle over a price? Some people are born negotiators and will enjoy the thrill of haggling over the price of something, whilst other people hate the idea of confrontation and will avoid it at all costs. As with most skills, some people have it and some don't!

Although negotiation is a core skill in purchasing, if it doesn't come naturally to you, don't worry, there are tools and techniques that will help you learn the art.

There is a common misconception that negotiation is all about getting angry with your supplier to make him drop the price: wrong. Firstly, there's the relationship management side of this to consider. Managing a good relationship with your supplier is crucial, and this is never going to happen if every time they call you with a price you shout that it's too much and that they must try harder.

Of course, there will be times when prices are too high and you must try to reduce them. But it's important to bear in mind that the cheapest deal is not necessarily the best deal, and negotiating on price will only deliver a small percentage of the potential savings. The larger and more successful elements can come from working closely with your supplier to improve business processes or improve service standards.

Networking - are you always in the kitchen at parties? Networking is another essential skill for an ambitious purchaser. But it isn't all about going to big conferences or social functions where you can chat over a glass of champagne. Networking is just as essential in the workplace. Being able to get amongst your colleagues outside of the purchasing team will help raise not only your profile, but that of your department. This will especially help in those organisations where purchasing isn't that high profile.

Financially astuteness - are you good with the purse strings? The necessity of financial prudence goes without saying in purchasing, but we'll say it anyway. After all, this is about spending money and, depending on which organisation you work for, spending lots of it! Being able to manage spending, control budgets and forecast price rises are all part of the package. If numbers and detail aren't your thing, this may not be the career for you.

Technology - ever shopped on eBay? eBay is a household name these days. Using online auctions or online marketplaces is a key part of a purchaser's role, especially for buying lower value items, and therefore an affinity with technology is key. In most jobs information and communications technology plays an essential part, and purchasing is no exception. The problem is that technology doesn't stand still, so it's crucial to stay ahead of the game, to understand what is on the horizon and not to be afraid to use it.

For more information visit www.cips.org

SALARIES AND REWARDS

The current job climate gives graduates an excellent opportunity to carve out a career in purchasing and supply management. Organisations are crying out for the right individuals to help them grasp purchasing and supply challenges and meet them head on. For those who can succeed, the rewards and benefits are there for the taking.

More and more organisations are establishing dedicated graduate training schemes in purchasing and supply management to ensure they can get the best possible talent at the earliest opportunity. High-calibre graduates are becoming highly sought after in this profession and therefore, to compete with other sectors, salaries are on the increase at graduate entry level.

It is very difficult to generalise on the subject of starting salaries, given that packages will differ greatly between one sector and another, and even between organisations within the same sector. However, at the lower end for a graduate we would estimate about £18,000, rising to £25,000 at the upper end.

This year's annual CIPS/Croner Reward purchasing and supply salary survey highlighted that junior management roles (often people who have come in at graduate-scheme entry level) are showing an average salary of £25,500. This soon progresses to £32,500 for middle management, jumping to £56,000 for senior management and £66,000 for director level. However, it must be emphasised that the right person in the right senior role can command salaries significantly higher than the above. It is also worth noting that at the time of the survey, the senior management salary levels outstripped other professions such as IT, finance, HR, sales and marketing.

The survey also highlighted other aspects of purchasing and supply. The pay for female purchasing professionals ranges from 3 per cent to 14 per cent below that of their male counterparts. Only at junior manager level and below does the pay gap reduce or disappear. Although males still outnumber females in the profession, the gap is definitely reducing as more and more females move into purchasing.

The survey also revealed that salaries differed depending on CIPS membership. Generally, CIPS members can expect to earn approximately £2,000 in additional salary. This is an important aspect to consider: as the recognised professional body, many employers do say that they would like individuals to have secured, or be working towards, full membership of CIPS.

The survey went on to highlight that a typical middle manager would work up to 39 hours a week, leaping up to 51-70 hours at director level. Generally, it was found that working hours were longer in the private sector compared with the public sector, although the pattern of working over and above contractual hours did not seem to be an issue in the purchasing and supply profession. This can perhaps be seen as a reflection of a good work and life balance.

The 2006 survey showed that 60 per cent of purchasing professionals reported that they had good or excellent job satisfaction, with 61 per cent saying job security was excellent. 64 per cent felt that pay was equal to the market, with 19 per cent saying they thought it was above and 12 per cent stating they thought it was below.

If travel is something that appeals to you, the purchasing profession offers great opportunities in that respect. Global supply chains and globally based organisations ensure that opportunities to travel extensively are manifold. This will all depend on the particular organisation, but if travelling is a desire then this may be the profession to choose.

No single role in purchasing will ever be the same. The kind of organisation will determine what goods and services will need to be bought. In the early stages, the secret is to gain as much experience as possible in as many areas as possible in order to ascertain which area of purchasing would be most suitable to pursue. The most important point to remember is that in the purchasing field the potential for career progression is excellent, and the opportunities to carve out a successful and rewarding career are there for the taking for the right candidates.

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