Debra Adkins: Women in Procurement

Debra Adkins

Debra Adkins is the contingent workforce program manager at Jeppesen Sanderson Inc., a Boeing company. It’s a role she never would have picked for herself — in fact, she never thought she would be working in procurement at all — but it has become a position she is passionate about.

In April 2014, the director of supplier management and procurement at Jeppesen put Debra in charge of the company’s contingent labor program. Debra was told she would be taking over immediately for a colleague transitioning to a new role. The news came as a surprise, and Debra admits she was a bit skeptical about the job. She had been working in the company’s procurement department but procuring actual raw materials — she didn’t have any experience procuring people or services. Despite her doubts, Debra decided to at least try her hand at the new role.

“I told myself to give it a good try — you won’t know if you don’t like it unless you give it 100 percent,” she said.

Debra aimed to educate herself as much as possible on contingent workforce management, attended conferences on the topic and networked with others in the field. Last fall, something clicked. Debra said she not only realized she was good at the work but that she liked it. She enjoyed being able to work with both internal coworkers at Jeppesen as well as engage with independent contractors coming onboard for special projects or services.

“All of the sudden there was that human element that I’ve always liked — that customer service to my internal customers and my external customers,” Debra said. “Being able to engage with the people and help them realize they are valued and appreciated in the service they provide to us, and then we turn around and maximize the value of their service back into the organization by making sure we have exactly the right worker for the assignment, is really becoming a rewarding thing where you can see that win.”

Procurement: An Unexpected Profession

Debra had a similar realization with the procurement profession at the beginning of her career.

Her first experience with procurement was at Full Service Beverage Company in the early ‘90s, where she served in a support position under the operations manager, taking care of not just administrative duties but also handled supply chain management tasks like resolving inventory transfer issues and managing vendor relationships. Her official title was “assistant to the operations manager,” but with the procurement-like tasks she was taking on, Debra said her job more closely aligned to that of a junior buyer.

Debra only stayed at the company about a year, but the job sparked her interest in procurement. She felt like she was effectively handling the tasks given to her and also felt her strong work ethic served her well, especially when it came to working with suppliers. That work ethic has continued to serve her well throughout her nearly 25-year career in procurement.

“I really never sought out to be a procurement professional,” Debra said. “It just continued to evolve and morph into a really cool career.”

At Jeppesen, Debra manages the contingent workforce program, including maintaining and developing relationships with suppliers and mitigating risks associated with engaging a contingent workforce.

“It’s just all become the icing on the cake for all the things I like to do in procurement,” she said.

Debra also takes pride in the accomplishments made running the contingent workforce program, such as developing a scorecard system to rate and review suppliers and creating more robust job descriptions so the company can find the most qualified candidates for contract work. She has helped build a “more buttoned-up process” for contingent labor at the company, she said, in collaboration with other departments like HR, IT and security. Debra also said she came to realize she liked the challenge of determining how to bring in external resources for services and learn how to engage with them while in compliance and with security in mind.

Determining how to provide valuable performance feedback to contract workers is one such challenge Debra is tackling. Her and some of her colleagues at Jeppesen recently pitched a new idea to a number of their suppliers on how they, along with the hiring managers and supervisors of contingent workers, can provide some sort of performance review to the contract workers directly. While realizing that giving contract workers performance reviews was not common, Debra said she still wanted to be able to communicate to a resource that they did a good job on a project and that their services were valued. She also said she didn’t want a contract worker who was let go due to project reorganization, for instance, to think they did something wrong. Such a system can help contingent workers improve, which is a benefit to the company as well, Debra explained.

Contingent Workforce Management: An Exciting Space

Workforces are strained at the moment, and companies continue to struggle to find qualified individuals to fill positions within their organization. It’s an issue widely reported as of late and remains a top challenge of many businesses. It’s also a problem Debra spoke about and one she wants to continue to try to solve within contingent workforce management. She said she plans to obtain more HR certifications and education to gain an even broader understanding of the contingent industry, the levels of risk involved and all the compliance that needs to be considered.

“Having that knowledge is power,” she said.

Debra already has a CPP certification (certified purchasing professional) from the American Purchasing Society, which she obtained in 2014 because she felt a responsibility to be as knowledgeable as possible about procurement if she was going to continue to work in the space.

It is an exciting time to be working in contingent workforce management, Debra said, and her background in procurement has proven valuable in her current role. And, while contract workers have been around for a long time, she said contingent workforce management is definitely becoming a more popular role at businesses. She is happy to be part of this growing field and wants to continue to develop in it. Debra can certainly see herself taking on an even higher leadership role within the contingent workforce space in the future. Whether or not that develops into a director position or not, Debra said she certainly has a number of skills in her “toolbox” from working in the space over the years. One major tool Debra suggests other women in procurement have is good communication skills. Keep an open mind, develop people skills and work on human engagement, she said.

“If they can hone their people skills, I think they can take it as far as they want,” Debra said.

Understanding how to communicate and work with others is key to tackling a challenge with both men and women colleagues, she said. Another thing she has learned in her career is that she doesn’t always have to provide an answer or solution to every question or problem immediately. Take a moment to pause and think about your response, she said.

“Making thoughtful, deliberate decisions is very valuable,” Debra said. “To be hasty because you think you have to give an answer so that it looks like you know what you are talking about isn’t always the best approach.”

Debra plans to take her own advice, too, as she advances in procurement and contingent labor management. Her passion for her career is obvious — she has even been told more than once her personal passion for her job is “infectious.”

“I know that for me personally and professionally passion is essential for my happiness, my success and my sanity,” Debra said.

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