The archaic job title of “purchasing agent” immediately conjures up images of a dull and boring career. But like many traditional business functions, the process of buying the supplies needed to fuel the engines of commerce has gone high-tech.

Robert Landeros, a management professor at Western Michigan University, has been watching the transformation firsthand. So has Steve Walton, assistant professor of decision and information analysis at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta.
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Beyond clerical
The field of e-purchasing or e-procurement is hardly five years old. Similarly, the concept of “supply-chain management,” which simply describes the product trail from manufacturer to distributor to wholesaler to retailer, has been around roughly the same length of time.

Traditionally, companies moved information from point to point, making the process long and cumbersome, according to Landeros.

“The Internet has changed all that by bringing information to all the players in the supply chain quickly, reducing the cost of holding inventory,” Landeros explained. “Purchasing is becoming more of a tech job because technology is being used as a tool. When I was in the profession 25 years ago, everything was done on paper and over the telephone. Now it’s done on the computer and over the Internet.”

Walton agrees. “The purchasing field was once populated by secretaries who made their way into more technical roles,” Walton said. Yet technical skills are only part of the supply chain process.

“Many companies are getting so caught up in the technology, they are forgetting there is a business that supports it. If you look at the string of money flowing through a company, 60 to 80 percent of it flows through purchasing. Getting it right in purchasing can really influence the bottom line.”

The job of the purchasing specialist has a host of job titles, such as director of sourcing, project manager, supply chain specialist, and consultant. And it has gone way beyond the clerical side of purchasing, now applying technology so a company can get the best prices from its suppliers, increase productivity, and get products to consumers faster.

Walton points out that the career niche of purchasing specialist, which is still being defined, was recently spotlighted eight months ago when General Motors and Ford announced within hours of each other that they were going to create their own online supplier management exchange.

Hardly a year later, Ford, GM, and Daimler-Chrysler went a step further by announcing the creation of a massive online supplier exchange—bringing together their suppliers and their suppliers’ suppliers to get better prices. These automakers controlled the purchasing power of virtually the entire automotive industry. The massive exchange points up the need for people who have a combination of business and technical skills.

Education and skills
But there aren’t many colleges offering degrees in supply chain management. WMU offers a program in supply chain management and so does Arizona State University, according to Walton.

It’s no surprise WMU grads with degrees in supply chain management are being hired before they graduate by companies that range from Harley-Davidson and John Deere to Oakley Sunglasses and Andersen Consulting. Pay? Entry-level jobs start in the mid-$40,000 range and go all the way up to $100,000 plus.

Despite the low number of degree programs, many schools are offering individual courses in supply chain management. Even without the coursework, a little ingenuity can turn someone into a potentially hot property.

Technical skills? Database management and Web development skills are critical. So is an understanding of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software like Baan and SAP.

Business skills? Learn everything you can about supply chain management. Plenty of information has been published on the subject.

“Even if you have no experience, a company will still be willing to take a chance on you if you go in demonstrating an understanding of the purchasing process,” Landeros said.

Three types of companies are likely to hire you, according to Walton. “You can follow the start-up, established company, or consulting company routes,” he says. “The riskiest path is working for a start-up because it’s almost impossible to gauge whether it will survive. However, it could be a great learning experience. Established companies and consulting firms are the safest route.”

Where do you get more information? Plug into the National Association of Purchasing Management and The Educational Society for Resource Management.
If you work in online procurement, how did you get to your current job? Did you have the same role in a traditional business, or did your bricks-and-mortar company go high-tech? Post your comments or send us an e-mail.