Degrees: What Are They Good for?

With no traditional career path into procurement, could apprenticeships plug the skills gap and tackle rising student debt?

Experience (2)

Louise Gapp Supply Chain, Procurement

I’m a strong believer in challenging traditional thinking. Particularly when it affects procurement, a sector I’m passionate about, and in which – as its recognition as a key business function continues to increase – the skills shortage, already in evidence, can only grow.

Procurement itself has changed, too, and savings are no longer the only metric. In the most successful organisations, supply-chain initiatives now drive sustainability, manage relationships and mitigate risks. (The collapse of a garment-manufacturing complex in Bangladesh supplying the UK market that killed over 1000 people is just one example of the potential dangers.)

However, although procurement has evolved, the career path to it hasn’t. In fact, I doubt it’s still on many school-leavers’ radars, and the undergraduate degrees that do exist are few and far between.

Not that I’m arguing for more courses. I’m not even convinced that the core skills of procurement can be taught: negotiating; relationship building; commercial awareness and, underlying them all, emotional intelligence (one person’s “straight-talking” can be another person’s “bolshie”) and the ability to build rapport in a fast-paced, pressurised environment.

That’s why practical experience remains key.

Time to Challenge Binary Thinking

Over the last 20 years we’ve all been brainwashed into seeing a university place as the holy grail. But whereas once – in the age of grants – it might have been a way of encouraging more equal access to a piece of the pie, it now comes at a high price with a recent study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies finding the average student leaves university with debts of around £44k.

At the same time as the number of graduates has grown – and following the most basic law of supply and demand – the market value of degrees has shrunk, meaning that, unless you plan on becoming a doctor or a lawyer, there’s no longer even the guarantee of a well-paid job at the end of your studies.

Which is why, although I might not go so far as to respond “absolutely nothing” when asked “Degrees, what are they good for?”, I’d certainly argue it’s time to question whether they’re right for everyone.

Equally, if you’re an employer, you could start by asking yourself whether you really need a graduate for every role – or is it just box-ticking? Degrees might be great news for the student loan companies, but are they producing employees with the skills and attitudes you need?

Which is where apprenticeships come in.

From Blue to White Collars

Whereas in the past apprenticeships tended to be associated more with trades, the launch of the Higher and Degree Apprenticeship Schemes opened the door to white-collar roles. I’m certainly convinced this is a positive step and, personally, if I were 18 again, I’d be seriously tempted by the chance to work in a business environment, gain practical skills, earn a full degree qualification AND get paid. (Particularly as reports suggest that the lifetime earnings of apprentices can outstrip those of graduates by up to 270%.)

This doesn’t mean I’d ever discourage employers from taking on a graduate who’s enthusiastic and fits the role, but embracing a future in which study fits alongside the development of practical skills will ensure your business plays its part in giving procurement the recognition it deserves.

A Win-Win Situation

Experience is always high on any employer’s wish list, which is why so many now actively favour candidates coming from an apprenticeship. However, you could go one stage further by taking on a school-leaver to complete a Commercial Procurement and Supply Chain apprenticeship within your own company. That way, not only will you be able to tailor talent to your own requirements, you’ll also receive government funding to do so.

Once you’ve chosen your successful candidate, you simply need to sign an agreement outlining the qualification they’ll work towards, along with their other employment T&Cs. (You can find out more on the CIPS website.)

If you really want to make a difference, CIPS are also looking for employers to join a trailblazer group developing higher-level apprenticeships. So, if you’re interested in being part of creating a Procurement & Supply Chain workforce with the skills and experience your company needs, get in touch with them here.

At Cedar, we understand that Procurement, Finance and Change & Transformation professionals often possess transferable skills that, in the right circumstances, can transcend background. That’s why we work with candidates from across all sectors, ensuring our clients have access to the best talent.

To discuss how we can support your company with all aspects of its Procurement and Supply Chain needs, call Louise today on 020 3002 8040.