© Getty images
© Getty images

Are you cut out for a procurement career?

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
3 March 2023

Procurement and supply chain expertise is in demand like never before, and it seems this period of heightened pressure is forging a stronger future for the profession

It takes an extreme environment to produce a diamond. If we apply this thinking to procurement it prompts the question: has a brilliant, tough new breed of professional been formed under the pressures of the past three years? Because surely even the most seasoned of buyers must be taking stock right now as the profession continues to endure one black swan event after another (and is the collective term black swan even relevant anymore?).

To take a quick glance back, the US-China trade war had already started affecting supply chains on a global scale when the Covid pandemic hit, and just when it seemed the world was coming through those, Russia invaded Ukraine, sending commodity markets haywire.

Procurement has long been a player in the war for talent, but as disruptions mounted reports started emerging that large numbers of people were quitting the profession as a result. It begs the question, if this really is the case, are we entering a new era where a different skillset is required to flourish in the role? There certainly seems to be agreement that the strain on buyers has reached unprecedented levels.

“I believe there’s a lot of pressure on procurement professionals due to the post-Covid rise in activities, materials shortages, continuing Covid challenges in Asia and a lack of qualified people in the workforce,” Egbert Smit, senior procurement and supply chain manager at infrastructure consulting firm AECOM tells Supply Management.

And Leanne Richards, senior procurement consultant at engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, agrees, adding geopolitical events, energy costs, rising inflation and the risk of supplier insolvency to the list. “People haven’t been given the opportunity to reflect and recover,” she says. And we shouldn’t forget that while buyers deal with hyperinflation in their professional lives, they are no more immune to it in their personal lives than anyone else.

“Higher costs of living and inflation impact procurement professionals on a personal level, therefore adding additional pressure,” Smit says.

Internal and external conflict points

The pressure cooker environment is also taking a toll on stakeholder relationships. “In some organisations procurement is simply expected to deliver the goods, whenever the business needs them,” says Smit. “This is fair to a point, but others in the business should realise they also play a key role in the procurement process, and it is too easy to blame only procurement if there are supply issues.

For instance, the business defines requirements and schedules, changes specifications of what needs to be bought, and should work with procurement to ensure delivery of the right items takes place at the right time. The concept of lead time is often forgotten about. Joint ownership of supply chains is the way forward here.”

This potent brew of potential conflicts is leading to volatility in an already constricted procurement jobs market, perhaps as people seek a better work-life balance. “The last 18 months has seen more procurement professionals switching jobs than ever before,” says Rupert Gaster, founder and managing director of recruitment firm Procurement Heads.

He sums up the situation by saying the talent squeeze has enabled people to achieve “significant salary uplifts”, but it has also affected teams, many of which have been left short-staffed or with a full body count but without the necessary skills.

“The procurement recruitment market is very buoyant and there are a high number of professionals continuing to change roles and companies,” says Richards. “At times this can cause resource issues and increase levels of burnout felt by some professionals.” This dynamic picture has produced another interesting trend: an increase in interim roles, with experts engaged short-term to fight fires and fix problems.

“Interims provide a fast-paced and experienced solution, something that has proven in high demand across the sectors we recruit into,” says Gaster. “I think there will be a continued and increased demand for interims, who will be brought in to focus on specific projects and help upskill existing procurement teams.”

Building and farming relationships

This gives us a clue as to the skills needed to operate in this turbulent space, where long-held assumptions about supply chain structures and processes are being called into question. One would be forgiven for thinking that skills around technology would be uppermost in people’s minds at a time like this, when much is being made of supply chain visibility and forecasting.

But it seems interpersonal skills are increasing in importance, as people tackle difficult conversations with suppliers about cost reductions, or they focus on building new relationships with alternative suppliers, and manage internal expectations.

“Soft skills, such as the ability to build relationships, stakeholder management and communication, are becoming increasingly important and valuable,” says Richards. “For example, these would be vitally important when initiating a successful conversation with a key vendor about where they could potentially reduce costs – without damaging the relationship.” Constantly shifting also requires a flexible mindset and agile approach, while the challenges of climate change and sustainability perhaps require more creativity.

Smit says: “Instead of repetitive processes we had in the past thanks to relative stability, we are entering a new world where a contract or supplier is disturbed on a regular basis and agility is required to find replacements or multiple supply channels to hedge risk. There will also be a requirement to be more proactive in anticipating that, say, the three-year contract put in place might not deliver for its duration.

“On the one hand, more risks might have to be taken to secure supply, while on the other skill in risk assessment and putting appropriate mitigation in place will be a key competence. This would also involve high levels of flexibility and a bigger focus on security of supply, instead of traditional success metrics like bottom-line savings.”

For Gaster, “the fact remains that how you partner with internal teams remains the skill of choice for procurement leaders and the ability to engage stakeholders is still top of the list”.

The shape of things to come

What does this mean for procurement professionals in the future? Against a backdrop of scarce resources and evolving skills, more automation of administrative procurement tasks will be needed, and even an end to the dominance of category management. “Teams might need to be more flexible with their approach where employees cover differing areas, depending on where the need is, rather than operating within category silos,” says Richards.

These skills are sounding less and less like the traditional process-driven ones of the past and more like those associated with visionary entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Gaster emphasises the importance of being able to bring challenges to life for stakeholders. “Storytelling is key to the success of the modern procurement practitioner,” he says. “I also believe the increased profile of the profession, through the media and regularity of procurement and supply chain trending on social media, will encourage people who previously may not have considered a career in procurement to apply for roles, especially with the clear progression path procurement can offer.”

Richards agrees, and in her mind the biggest issue is making procurement a career of choice for those drawn to challenge and adaptability. “I think that in the future individuals that thrive on change, challenge and problem-solving may be more attracted to the profession than those who work better in process-based environments.”

So is it possible the topsy-turvy world of the past two years is accelerating what many have predicted as the future of the profession? That out of the chaos we are seeing the emergence of a career path with less process, more soft skills and a core of creativity.

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