Class in session—MAY 2012 PRINT EDITION

When it comes to getting educated or keeping skills up to date, procurement professionals now have more options than ever

June 20, 2012
by By Michael Power

Whether it’s looking for the right job, choosing where to study or deciding how to complete a professional designation, continuous learning for the procurement and supply chain professional is no simple task. Purchasing professionals must weigh options, look at what skills employers are seeking and decide whether they want to spend most of their class time in a classroom or online. Purchasingb2b took a look at trends in continuing education, along with how to align that education with skills and attributes employers want.

The right stuff
Few employers consider any sort of education absolutely mandatory for procurement candidates, says Katherine Risley, former division manager for procurement at Hays Specialist Recruitment. But while actual skills tend to be more important, that can depend on how much experience a candidate has. Those with little on-the-job experience definitely benefit from education. “I think involvement in the SCMP and university is way more important (in those cases) because you don’t have the procurement chops behind you,” she says.

Most people don’t jump into procurement and supply chain right out of university, Risley notes. So candidates applying for, say, a sourcing analyst position requiring a few years’ experience are well served by a degree and a visible commitment to getting their SCMP. “In an interview, employers like to see that,” she says. “They feel like it’s keeping them up-to-date with what’s going on, it’s keeping them connected to their network, and I think in procurement that’s really important.”

But that’s less the case as candidates get more experience, Risley says. More senior positions, such as those offering $80,000 plus, tend to come down to experience. “Once you’ve been working for 20 years, does it really matter that you went through four years of university 20 years ago? What you’ve done since is what’s really important.”

In terms of skills, the focus recently is on strategic thinking, Risley says. Rather than just focusing on the transactional aspects of the job, many employees now must “think outside the box” in order to come up with creative ways to get more strategic goals accomplished for their organizations. And while having competence in the transactional skills of the job is important, like processing a purchase order, exposure to larger projects that push boundaries in terms of finding solutions to challenges is what sets excellent candidates apart. “Those are the candidates that are hot in the marketplace,” Risley says. “The ones who can think outside the box and see how an alignment with a certain vendor can benefit their organization. They’re not just about price—it’s about partnership.”

The developing SCMP
The SCMP designation is tailored towards those strategic skills description, says Cheryl Paradowski, president and CEO of the Purchasing Management Association of Canada (PMAC). Earning the designation helps demonstrate a professional has what it takes to contribute that strategic element to their organization. The SCMP combines tactical skills like operations, transportation and logistics with broader skills such as communication, negotiation, problem solving, strategic planning and project management, she says.

A recent Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (CSCSC) survey of employers, employees and education providers in the supply chain sector bore out the importance of this direction, Paradowski notes. The report, released in March, provided reinforcement for PMAC’s strategic direction since, according to the report, hot skills include those related to leadership, communication and technology. “It’s interesting to see that come forward and to see it as a reinforcement of our goal to combine the tactical with what I would consider to be softer skills,” she says.

The designation differs from an academic credential like a degree in several key ways, Paradowski says. For instance, programs such as an MBA have no common standard—no one defines what an MBA means or what the focus will be. Professional designations are usually based on standards and are defined by a single credential-granting organization. And usually with professional designations, there’s a requirement that graduates prove they can perform in the field. In PMAC’s case, there’s the requirement to complete a practical exam based on a case study.

The value of the SCMP was also highlighted in the 2011 Supply Chain Salary Survey, conducted by Purchasingb2b and PMAC, which revealed a 16-percent salary advantage for those holding the designation, Paradowski notes.

The association is constantly updating the SCMP requirements and curriculum. On one level, PMAC performs a general quality edit twice a year. The second area that’s regularly updated (also twice a year) involves looking through the curriculum’s materials and readings and updating the references as needed. Thirdly, a content review committee proposes larger changes to SCMP material annually.

Those with an SCMP must also continue learning after they receive their designation. In January, the association launched an updated continuous professional development requirement with eligibility in three areas for professional development. SCMP holders can now earn continuous development points in:

• Instruction and publication: those who are teaching, developing courses and submitting articles for publication;
• Continuing education: taking courses, attending webinars and conferences; and
• Professional and community leadership: there are points available for volunteering with PMAC and other organizations, mentoring and participating in career and trade shows.
“We try to provide a fairly broad opportunity for gaining that experience because we don’t think it comes just from going through different courses,” she says. “There’s a much broader way to address that.”

Who needs an MBA?
With the shift of procurement and supply chain towards a more strategic role within organizations, an emphasis on general business skills has also emerged. Those looking to take procurement into the C-suite as chief procurement officers, for example, can benefit from skills and knowledge across several departments within an organization. So, what are the advantages of an advanced business degree like the MBA?

A Masters in business administration is seldom a prerequisite for those new to the field, says Garland Chow, associate professor, Sauder School of Business and director, Bureau of Intelligent Transportation Systems & Freight Security at the University of British Columbia. The traditional MBA focuses on giving students the skills to become managers, usually without specialized procurement and supply chain instruction. As well, those at (or close to) the entry level are rarely charged with making strategic decisions. In fact, says Chow, who has an MBA, procurement professionals may fare better with an undergraduate degree since there’s often more sourcing related content in such programs.
But an MBA can prove valuable for those looking to move up the corporate food chain, Chow notes. “Much of an MBA is about how to collaborate and interact with people from other areas of the company,” he says. “The MBA seeks to promote and develop this. In general, the higher up you go, the greater your interaction is going to be with your colleagues in HR, marketing, finance and IT.”

Another advantage of the MBA for procurement professionals looking for an office in the C-suite is an international focus, says Chow, who sits on PMAC’s board and heads the association’s education committee. Business has become international and global sourcing, dealing with suppliers and customers around the world, has also become more common. Global sourcing is more complex and requires more cross-functional decision-making—something an MBA can help prepare an employee for.
Some organizations do put stock in their senior management having the degree, says Risley. Procurement involves many skills, and an MBA offers a broad look at commerce. “I think taking your MBA isn’t a bad thing because to be really good at procurement, you do need a range of business skills.”

The online advantage
With the rise of the internet, the classroom no longer necessarily means a physical space. The option to study online—and therefore from anywhere around the globe—has become increasingly popular among students, says Neil Bishop, coordinator of the business-supply chain management program at the Lawrence Kinlin School of Business at Fanshawe College.
“It allows (institutions) to pick up people out working in the field who don’t have time to go to day classes, or even night may be tough for them,” Bishop says.
The school is doing internal pilot testing with online courses related to supply chain with the hope of offering such courses in the near future.

The internet has meant Canadian students have the option to study  at universities and colleges in the US and around the world, says Chris Wilford of Bisk Education. Through the University Alliance, the organization partners with several major universities in the US, including VillaNova, Notre Dame, the University of San Francisco, Michigan State and Florida Tech. A major focus of the partnership is bringing programs online, with courses on offer tailored to (or useful for) procurement and supply chain like contract management, Six Sigma, negotiation and supply chain management.

“Everything we do is 100-percent online,” says Wilford, noting several Canadian students study through the organization. “The advantage is any company that has multiple locations, if somebody is in Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto, rather than fly their employees to one location—say, Toronto, for training—you don’t have to do that. They may be headquartered in Toronto but they have locations throughout the US and elsewhere.” Employees can get consistent training without having to leave their worksites.

Getting the word out
The range of education options available to procurement and supply chain professionals is perhaps larger and more varied than ever. But the need to raise awareness of the supply chain field stands out as a necessary step, says Bishop. The curriculum needs to be adjusted at the secondary school level to introduce the supply chain earlier. “We need to get people aware of it,” he says. “I can probably name 20 people that fell into purchasing and have no formal education in it. That, to me, is an issue. But we work with that and when we get the opportunity we can sell the people on the reason you need professionalism.”