PURCHASING IN EDUCATION

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Purchasing functions in educational institutions fall into two very distinct categories: purchasing in private schools and colleges, which includes private technical and vocational schools; and purchasing in educational institutions in the public sector, which includes municipal or county school districts, state or municipal colleges and universities, and vocational/technical schools.

The product classifications are generally school supplies, text books, custodial supplies, food and food service supplies and equipment, classroom and office furniture, maintenance and grounds equipment and supplies, laboratory equipment, and other specialized products and services, depending on the nature of the institution.

Because the environment is centered on education, there is often more emphasis on degrees, even in entry-level positions, than in other industry classifications. Opportunities for those lacking degrees are most often found in the technical areas, such as maintenance or food service, where extensive product knowledge is required. The desirability of a degree, however, increases as the level of education increases. For example, a four-year degree is more often required at the college or university level than at the elementary school level.



PRIVATE EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

The Nature of the Work

In smaller private schools, the purchasing function is usually contained within the business office or administration, and, in fact, it is not unusual for the business manager to also wear the hat of purchasing agent. In these situations, the actual interviewing of salespeople and preparation of orders may be done by department heads and submitted to the business manager for review and approval. As the size of the school increases, purchasing becomes more of a specialized function, and a specific department will be charged with the purchasing responsibility.

The purchasing system most often used is the open-market quotation. The purchasing agent solicits prices by phone or letter and buys the products from whoever has the best price and has historically provided the best quality and service. There are usually no documentation requirements, and the school usually depends on the judgment of the buyer to obtain the best deal. Sometimes, if the order is large, the agent sends out specifications and requests a formal price quotation. This procedure is most often used when purchasing classroom or maintenance equipment.

The work environment is usually very pleasant, and the purchasing agent is able to work quite independently as long as he or she maintains good relations and communications with department heads.

The larger the institution, the more formalized the purchasing function becomes. Buyers are assigned categories of products and services, and more structured systems of purchase requisitions, orders, and receiving reports are maintained. As in smaller schools, the purchasing function is still contained within the administrative or financial services division and is considered to be a support activity.

Purchasing policy and procedures are formulated and established by the head of purchasing and his or her immediate superior, usually the director or vice-president of administrative or financial services. Higher-level educational institutions tend to have very sophisticated systems and operate on the leading edge of purchasing technology, probably because of the availability of information on many subjects from academic departments.

Buyers are responsible for the procurement of a variety of products, ranging from hard goods for the bookstore (which, more often, resembles a department store) to chemicals for the chemistry labs. As in practically every other industry, there must be much interaction between the purchasing department and the using departments. Specifications are developed on a case-by-case basis-in some cases they are developed jointly by the using department, and in other cases the using department originates the specifications and the order.

For buyers, the emphasis is on product knowledge, and, since they work in the private sector, they have the authority to commit; subject to the director of purchasing's approval. They can exercise their own judgment regarding the past performance of suppliers. In addition to the actual buying functions, the director of purchasing is usually in charge of inventory control, central receiving, warehousing, quality control, vendor evaluation, transportation, and travel services. He or she usually serves on several committees, including planning, budget or finance, cost control, policy, facilities and long-term or strategic planning.

Entry Requirements and Qualifications

What type of person will be successful in the private education al setting? First and foremost, you must be able to communicate verbally and in writing with extremely diverse groups of people, particularly in larger institutions. The composition of the groups that you will be working with include chemists, engineers, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, social scientists, administrators, and students. You must be patient and even tempered, not easily frustrated, and able to work with both worlds business and academia. Teamwork is necessary, even critical, when trying to meet the needs of various academic programs.

Working Conditions

What can you expect from a career in purchasing in a private educational setting? First, as noted before, the working environment is pleasant and relatively structured, but not regimented. Compensation may be slightly below average. Employment in older or well-established institutions is stable, and the pace is relatively consistent. Fringe benefit pack ages are usually excellent, and there are numerous activities available at little or no cost.

PUBLIC EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

The Nature of the Work

Purchasing in public educational institutions is often subject to the same regulations and guidelines that govern state, county, and municipal procurement simply because the source of ±e operating funds is the same-the taxpayer. The amount of control, however, exercised by the government entity varies considerably, depending upon such factors as the number of schools within a system, the size of the area covered, and the type of governing entity involved. Some elementary and secondary school districts maintain a centralized purchasing system for all schools within the district, while others may be required to buy everything through the government purchasing division- Small isolated rural schools, however, may have the authority to purchase according to their own system.

Large public technical/vocational schools, colleges, and universities often have their own purchasing departments, but policies and procedures are established and monitored by a government entity. For example, a large state university may have the authority to buy those items funded by their own operating budget, but capital items funded by the state general fund must be purchased by the state central purchasing department.

If you are interested in a purchasing career in this area, it is advisable to investigate the overall purchasing system for the institution that you are interested in joining. The overall structure will determine how much autonomy you will have, what the promotional and career opportunities are for the desired location, and the amount of authority you will have to develop your own specifications and buying procedures.

The autonomy issue is important because often the products purchased by a government agency may not be appropriate for use in an educational institution. For example, one major state university had a constant problem with student dissatisfaction because it was required to purchase all of its food products through the state purchasing department. Unfortunately, the food product specifications were designed for use by the state prison system and were not suitable for use in the university kitchens because of a difference in the type of cooking equipment. It took numerous food riots, many letters to the editors of major state newspapers, and some unfavorable television coverage before the university was allowed to develop its own specifications. The university purchasing department, however, took the brunt of the criticism for something that was beyond its control.

In public sector educational institutions, most purchasing systems revolve around the formal bidding procedure. After "a needs assessment" has determined the products and services required, detailed specifications and bid instructions are prepared and distributed to potential suppliers. Often, invitations to bid are advertised in local newspapers and business journals. In fact, in many states and municipalities, bid advertising is required by local statutes. Usually the bidding documents require that vendors agree to supply the products for a specific period of time at the same price or at a price indexed to some commonly accepted standard. In some cases, bid openings are public, and, except in cases in which the purchasing department can demonstrate that the bidder is not qualified, title contract is awarded to the one bidding the lowest price.

The range of products and services is similar to those purchased by private institutions. However, because of the difference in purchasing systems, the public institution requires considerably longer lead time, a fact not always appreciated by academia. Consequently, the need to relate and communicate effectively with all departments is critical.

Working Conditions

In general, working conditions are quite similar to those in private institutions, although the compensation and promotional opportunities are governed by civil service regulations. In many of the larger institutions, particularly in the East, all levels of employees, even administrators and faculty, are unionized and, therefore, many of the internal promotions and privileges are based on seniority. Fringe benefit programs are usually excellent, and civil service is usually highly stable as far as job security is concerned.

Working within a highly structured government environment places some unusual demands on those in purchasing. The sometimes slow-paced tempo of a bureaucracy can be extremely stress-fill, especially when the various departments are clamoring for their orders. The systems can be so cumbersome that it is difficult to pinpoint responsibility when things go wrong, another situation that can be very frustrating.

Although buyers must have adequate product knowledge, the principal requirement is knowledge of the purchasing system and how to administer that system in the best interests of the taxpayer. Excellent writing skills are essential since the written specification is the only legal communication between the buyer and the seller. An incomplete or poorly written specification may force the institution to accept a product of poor quality, or even the wrong product.

So what qualities must you have to work successfully within a public educational institution? You must be able to work within a highly structured organizational framework. You must be detail minded, stress tolerant, a team player, and very even tempered. You must be able to cope with bureaucracy and, as in the private sector, communicate effectively with a diverse group of people who differ widely in terms of their background, culture, and experiences. You must be goal oriented but patient, a problem solver, and be able to project what you could do in several "what if" situations. You must develop the habit of always having a fallback position.

As noted before, the degree of autonomy and authority is a key factor in public education purchasing. Because education involves some very special and unique demands, your ability to meet those demands will depend upon the amount of flexibility and decision making that the system will allow.
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