The Definition of an Entry-Level Procurement Role is Changing

The role of an entry-level procurement professional has remained relatively unchanged for decades.

We’d be willing to bet that some hiring managers have been copying and pasting the same job description since the nineties. 

But the rapid acceleration of digital transformation across the enterprise – procurement included – has pushed much of the traditional task-load of a procurement cadet into obsolescence.

In this article, we explore which entry-level tasks are becoming obsolete, what has replaced them, and how this is changing selection criteria at the entry level.

Traditional entry-level tasks are being automated

A typical job description for an entry-level procurement role might involve assisting with the daily activities of the department, handling routine purchases of products and services, researching, comparing, evaluating, and approving prospective suppliers. In addition, supplier information needs to be updated and maintained, procurement policies must be policed, inventories managed, spend analyzed, and reports produced. 

But the reality in 2023 is that reports can be generated at the click of a mouse. Artificial intelligence can sort through and analyze spend data much faster and more effectively than a human, while companies of every shape and size have charged ahead with automating as many day-to-day tasks as possible – including routine purchasing and payments.  

From simple process automation to sophisticated AI and Machine Learning (ML), procurement digitization has transformed everything from supplier discovery to evaluation, contract management, data capture, risk management, compliance, demand planning, spend analytics, and reporting. Manual, repetitive, and (let’s face it) boring tasks such as data entry and invoice processing have long been automated, freeing up human time while reducing the likelihood of errors.

What does this leave for entry-level procurement?

Institute for Supply Management CEO Tom Derry once predicted that procurement professionals in the future will evolve into “stewards of a process”. This means that an entry-level procurement profession must oversee a process – say, automated invoice processing – ensuring the process meets business needs, ensuring the AI/ML is being fed the correct data, and looking for opportunities to drive continuous improvement. This doesn’t necessarily mean the next generation will need to be software programmers: procurement software and systems have evolved to the point where anyone can use them with a minimal learning curve.    

Many of the tasks listed above still need human input, but the point is that automation has made them much, much faster. According to research by Smartsheet, most workers estimate a time saving of six or more hours per week with the power of automation across manual tasks such as data collection, approvals, and requesting status. 72% of workers would use that extra day per week to do work that is more valuable to their organizations.

…Which brings us to the exciting part. The traditional career journey of a procurement professional has always been “tactical first, strategic later”. But the automation of tactical elements means every member of your team, no matter how junior, has the opportunity to think and act strategically.

Strategic tasks

We can expect entry-level job descriptions to include more strategic tasks such as developing viable category strategies, evaluating and updating existing policies, aligning procurement practises with company objectives such as sustainability and diversity, and looking for medium- to long-term cost saving initiatives.

But is “entry level” compatible with “strategic”? Some recruiters will tell you that strategic know-how only comes from years of experience, long immersion in your industry, mistakes made and lessons learned. But I believe it’s entirely possible to assess a candidate for a strategic mindset, then show them how to apply that mindset to a task such as category planning once they’re onboard.

Ask candidates questions that determine their ability to look at a problem from a 360-degree viewpoint, and whether they’re able to see opportunities where others see a threat. Are they agile and creative in their answers? Above all, pay attention to the questions they ask you – do they demonstrate curiosity and inquisitiveness?

Human tasks

The march of automation in procurement has done wonders for refocusing attention on the human side of the profession. There are several high-value tasks that – for now at least – even junior team members can do better than a machine. Job descriptions should include human tasks based around soft skills such as:

  • Developing relationships with internal stakeholders
  • Developing relationships with suppliers to unlock additional value
  • Negotiating with suppliers on price and other factors
  • Communicating the value of procurement within the business
  • Working effectively with other functions
  • Getting away from the desk to visit supplier operations, distribution centers etc.

Look for attributes in candidates such as collaboration, communication, relationship management, adaptability, independence, and a willingness to learn. Combine these with hard skills such as technical savviness and good financial understanding, and you can’t go wrong.