Selling Kids on a Career in Procurement is Impossible — Here’s a Better Option

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I have two teenagers who are approaching college age, and I'm having flashbacks to when my father, a hard-working immigrant with an engineering degree, was asking me what type of engineer I wanted to be so that I could get a “real job.” At that time, I was more concerned with other, er, less practical interests.

Flash-forward to today, and I find myself asking my oldest son whether he might pursue an interesting career in the wonderful world of supply. With starting salaries out of top undergraduate supply chain programs at roughly $60,000, it’s almost a no-brainer, right? Well, you can probably surmise his response: Major eye roll.

Let’s face it. No child ever says, "I want to be a purchasing manager when I grow up.” Honestly, the term procurement itself draws blank stares from kids — and even adults. The best I can do is tell people that I try to help companies “buy better.” They usually nod politely, and even murmur an “uh-huh” if I give some B2C consumer analogies of how people try to shop online for supplies, home services, mortgages, travel and so on.

The act of buying better is important, of course, and people do understand that it’s important to have professional buyers to negotiate with professional sales people. Buying should be guided and not just involve being sold to, right? But, “doing deals and paying bills,” in the words of a CPO describing the old model, is not the stuff of dreams.

Most everybody that ends up in procurement sort of falls into it, but those who stay in the field and take leadership positions are finding that procurement is obviously a lot more than just a stovepiped “source/buy” process. So, what’s a good broader metaphor than the classic negotiator? Well, you can use the example of procurement as the “nutritionist to the enterprise” to ensure that only safe and healthy ‘foods’ are being consumed. (This video by Arizona State University video does a good job with this metaphor.)

But procurement is really about strategic supply management, about the art and science of managing supply (i.e., use “supply” as a verb rather than “source” in the supply chain). It’s about externalizing the business wisely and designing/managing extended value chains to tap supply market power, preferably served up as a service. As a slogan, it puts the “supply” in the “supply chain!” (Feel free to trademark that — and read the whole report I actually did on the topic.)   And if you don’t like “Supply” as a term in a world of services, well, services are a type of supply, too, complete with their own supply chains (and associated research study).

So, perhaps the solution isn’t to try to sell kids vocationally on procurement at all but rather introduce the area of the broader supply chain. This is the approach APICS is taking with its innovative, hands-on, workshop-based K–12 educational program for supply chain, as our editor Sydney Lazarus recently wrote about in a two part series (here and here). To date, APICS has engaged more than 15,000 kids and plans to reach 100,000 by 2020. What I like about this program is its focus on the “talent supply chain” in terms of age-appropriate interactive activities that immerse the participants in workshop “games” that involve things like lemonade making, paper airplanes, Legos and cell phones (this game itself was designed by an ASU student).

The APICS program is called Supply Chain STEM, and it focuses on similar objectives as core STEM education, but with a supply chain-specific flavor, as well. This focus on foundational knowledge for the building blocks of the supply chain in terms of math, science, technology and engineering is terrific, but the experiential learning is even better and could be extended even further.

Getting kids excited about supply chain will need to focus not just on the “how” but the “wow”! (You can trademark that one, too.) Supply chains have created some of the world’s biggest problems, but they can also be the solution to other major problems, including drought, famine, disease, energy and education. Supply chains are also hidden from everyday consumers. They’re the black box that sits between “Alexa, order me more dog food” and the package showing up at the door. But the trick is to find those future leaders who are curious and who care about what’s in that black box; why it was designed; how to improve that design; and favorably impact those who participate along that value chain. That’s is a big nut to crack, but I think that the problem is solvable.

Please follow Pierre Mitchell on Twitter @SupplyMatters.

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Voices (2)

  1. Jason Busch:


    This post made my day … I’ve tried the same with our 10 and 13 year old. They can say what Lisa does — “Mom knows more about buying metals cheaply than anyone” but they have a harder time when I explain to them what I do.

  2. Danny Graham:

    So true that the term “procurement” draws blank stares from kids and even adults. I usually resort to “purchasing”.

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