Soft skills are more important now than ever for young procurement professionals © Klaus Vedfelt
Soft skills are more important now than ever for young procurement professionals © Klaus Vedfelt

The skills needed by a new generation of buyers

The automation of procurement tasks coupled with challenges posed by hybrid working have dramatically altered the skills needed by young people entering the profession. 

The Covid pandemic, along with wider trends in procurement, mean soft skills are becoming increasingly important for the next generation of workers, delegates at eWorld were told.

Savita Mace, director of supplier management at AstraZeneca said: “I don't know about you, but the next generation is far smarter than I am. They're far more technology savvy. They are the generation that's going to lead the future of most of our careers, in terms of what we have done in our life and what we will do.”

Automation throughout the function is fundamentally changing the role of early career procurement professionals, said Mace.

She said: “What I've seen in the last decade, and all of you have experienced this, in procurement – supplier payments, distribution, analytics, inventory management, when I started out, these activities were my job. Now if I was 20 years younger I would have no job because these things have all been fully automated or semi automated.” 

She said young talent entering the profession needed to be “all-rounded professionals” to meet the requirements of modern procurement dynamics and to “stay ahead of the robots”. 

Mace said: “As a procurement professional, being all-rounded really means we have to see the big picture. We have to be more empathetic, business savvy, understanding trends, and understanding what our customers need.

“I can only make reference to my career, but in a lot of the jobs there was definitely a gap between my deep understanding of customers and what our customers in our organisation would need, what our customers were feeling, what they want, and what they would be needing in five to 10 years. Being very business savvy, being creative, and having that all-rounded perspective is what we will require for the future as procurement professionals.”

She said procurement teams must “demand to be at the table” to be able to get closer to stakeholders to understand their “pain points”. 

“We not only need to ask to be at that table, but for us to demand to be there. Because without us having that seat not at the top table anymore, but at the marketers table, at the brand level, at the customer insight level, we won't exist in 20 years.”

Jack Greenwood, senior procurement manager at law firm Clifford Chance, who was shortlisted for CIPS Young Talent of the Year in 2020, said the pandemic and shift to online and hybrid working meant soft skills including strong communication and networking abilities were becoming increasingly important in the profession for young workers.

He said this was due to the “expanding role of procurement.”

“Previously, if you were siloed in a role in procurement, technical skills would get you by. If you're now talking to CTOs, heads of risk, heads of finance, you need soft skills to be able to excel in your role. I think it's like the expanding role of procurement, which has helped to really drive those, and I think we'll continue to see that in the next five years.”

In 2015, a solid understanding of Word, Excel and PowerPoint was listed on the majority of procurement job adverts, but Greenwood said this is becoming less relevant.

He said: “I'm very much of the view of, actually, modern talent might not need to know how to use Excel. I think all of us do have a base layer of understanding, but when you have the reporting capability that you do in many modern organisations, as long as they’re able to interpret that data and communicate effectively to stakeholders, for me, it's not a fundamental requirement of the role anymore.

“Technical skills have always been that fundamental, but soft skills are just growing ever so more within that.” 

Hybrid working poses its own challenges. Greenwood said it’s not enough to simply work virtually, but to be “virtually present”.

“In person, people can see you're very smartly dressed, you're passionate. Sometimes that can be very hard to translate on a webcam if your camera is not very good, or if you're in a dark room. A lot of people are working really hard to try and make sure we can push that and so we can come across the best we can for our stakeholders.” 

Greenwood noted the priorities for young procurement professionals have also changed. While previously those entering the profession valued the pulling power of a big company name, young people now are finding greater value in the purpose of the work they are doing, rather than reputation.

He explained: “The content and the purpose of work is hugely significant for people. Now, people want to make sure they feel like they're making an impact. And they're not happy to coast on a project for a year or two. 

“Reputation used to mean working for a household name, so you could go out with your friends or family and say, ‘I work for American Express’. But that doesn't matter anymore. People care about the work you're doing, and what impact you're making and that counts miles more in my opinion.”

This reflects a wider change in procurement, and procurement managers must respond to get the most out of a new generation of buyers. 

Greenwood continued: “The skills that we as leaders and businesses are asking of talent is changing. Talent is asking businesses to change in the way that they progress through their careers. And therefore, it's our responsibility to make sure we can adapt those two together. 

“This is a significant period of change, not only in the world, but within procurement itself. I think that'll just help to accelerate a lot of the issues or the problems that we can help to solve.”

Generational shifts and the rise of side hustles – including side businesses, social media and blogging skills – among young workers can also enrich procurement teams, Greenwood said. 

“Some of you may be surprised if you asked your teams, that they do have a lot going on on the side as well. Whether it be through Instagram, I've seen baking pages, I've seen resellers. There's a lot going on out there and actually there’s a lot of skills that young talent can then bring to an organisation through those learnings from their side hustles,” he said.

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