Education and Training Bachelor's degree and on-the-job training; master's degree necessary for positions with some companies
Salary Median—$47,680 per year
Employment Outlook Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Purchasing agents are in charge of all buying for their company. Unlike retail or wholesale buyers who purchase products for resale, purchasing agents buy the raw materials, goods, and services their company needs to maintain operations. They also buy supplies and services offered by outside contractors such as office cleaners. Purchasing agents are employed by many types of businesses and by institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government offices.
Purchasing agents, or buyers as they are sometimes called, see that their company has a sufficient supply of the materials it needs to operate. However, agents must avoid tying up too much of the company's money in supplies. Their job is to balance quality with cost to ensure that the best purchases are made. Buying an item, material, or service whose quality is too high for its intended use is a waste of company funds. For instance, buying mahogany crates to ship oranges would be a waste of money. Buying an item of low quality may prove costly as well, because it may break down or otherwise malfunction.
It is vital that purchasers stay up to date on overall market conditions and price trends that affect what they are buying. They use the latest pricing information available on the Internet to compute the price of items, the cost of handling and transportation for those items, and the cost of time spent by workers who unload the stock and fill out shipping paperwork. The timing of purchases must be right as well. If a manufacturer runs out of a part, costly production delays may occur. Timing is also important in getting the best prices: in many industries the cost of supplies varies greatly within a season.
Purchasing agents coordinate their company's production schedule with the schedules of many outside suppliers. Sometimes a supplier may be unable to make a delivery because of a strike or a transportation problem. If agents are able to anticipate such delays, they can arrange to buy important supplies ahead of time or take their business to another company.
Additionally, agents work closely with many of the departments in their own company such as the receiving, traffic, and supply departments. They often employ assistants known as expediters who handle much of the paperwork and other details involved in making purchases, arranging shipping, and settling claims.
In a small company one purchasing agent may do all the buying for the firm. Large corporations may employ as many as one hundred purchasing agents, each of whom specialize in one aspect of the job such as purchasing one kind of material or a single part for a certain type of machinery.
Education and Training Requirements
Education requirements in this field vary. In general purchasing agents need a college degree and in some cases a master's degree as well. Most companies prefer applicants who have a degree in business administration. College courses in purchasing, office and traffic management, and marketing are helpful. A good understanding of widely used spreadsheet and word processing software is also valuable. In some companies purchasing agents need a great deal of technical knowledge. Specialty firms such as chemical companies may require their agents to have undergraduate training in science and a master's degree in business.
Some purchasing agents begin as expediters and work their way up to better-paying jobs with more responsibilities. Other beginners are hired as purchasing department trainees. Trainees learn on the job and may receive classroom instruction as well. They may also work for short periods of time in other departments to learn about the company's purchasing needs. Most training periods last one to five years.
Getting the Job
Students can find assistance in their job search at their school placement office. Public and private employment agencies, newspaper want ads, and Internet job sites often list openings for purchasing agents. Interested individuals can also apply directly to the firms for which they would like to work. For a government job candidates need to take the civil service test.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
With experience, purchasing agents can advance to the positions of assistant purchasing manager or purchasing department head. They may also be promoted to top posts in the traffic or warehousing department. Workers with a graduate degree in business generally have a better chance for advancement than those without one.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, purchasing agents held 273,000 jobs in 2004. Employment of purchasing agents was expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations between 2004 and 2014. The Internet and computers allow purchasing agents to gain access to vast amounts of information and make deals at the touch of a button. With these innovations agents can do their work much faster, eliminating some of the need for additional agents as business expands.
Aside from technological advances, trends in business show that many more materials—steel and lumber, for instance—are entering the United States from foreign countries. Companies are hiring foreign purchasing agents who speak the language and know the customs of these countries to handle this type of buying. However, there will be a need in the United States to replace purchasing agents who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.
Purchasing agents spend most of their time in an office, although they occasionally visit plants and attend conferences. Overtime beyond a standard forty-hour workweek is sometimes necessary, especially in industries in which production is seasonal. Purchasing agents must be problem solvers with an eye for detail and the ability to coordinate many activities.
Where to Go for More Information
American Purchasing Society
8 E. Galena Blvd., Ste. 203
Aurora, IL 60506
Institute for Supply Management
P.O. Box 22160
Tempe, AZ 85285-2160
Earnings and Benefits
Salary varies with the size of the company and the worker's education and experience. Purchasing agents earned a median salary of $47,680 per year in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top-paid 10 percent made more than $79,710 a year. Some companies offer bonuses, depending on yearly profits. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.