How do you tackle the burning pyre when the pool runs dry?

At a recent meeting of volunteers who help steer the development of Wales’ procurement centre of excellence, Helen Rees, Head of Procurement and Contracting with Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, spoke about what was initially a hopeless journey to bolster her struggling team with an additional procurement officer.

When asked to recap her story for, Helen kindly agreed. It’s a lesson in stepping back from a situation and rethinking the need.

We needed another pair of hands

“In February 2021 I submitted a business case to my Director to add a procurement officer role to the very small procurement team (three people) due to very heavy workloads within the function. My request was approved on a 12-month interim basis, and the role went out to advert.

“Within the person specification I requested previous public sector procurement experience and the CIPS qualification, or studying towards it as essential criteria, as the department needed someone who could hit the ground running.

Is there ANYONE out there?

Unfortunately, only one application was received. The individual was interviewed but was not suitable, as they had no knowledge or experience of public sector procurement, and had not achieved their professional qualification.

The role was readvertised in early April 2021. On this occasion, two responses were received, neither of which had public sector procurement experience or the CIPS professional qualification. Following interviews, none of the applicants was deemed suitable.

In late April 2021, the role was advertised via an employment agency but to no avail, as only one application was received, and they had no experience whatsoever in the field of procurement.

The role was advertised via the agency again in May 2021 and three applicants were received. Two of the applicants had no experience whatsoever within the procurement arena, and the third had procurement experience albeit the individual had retired some 15 years previously.

Due to the lack of suitable applicants received previously, it was agreed that we offer the individual with past experience the role. Unfortunately, things did not work out and the individual left the organisation before completing their third month of probation – they had retired prior to the Public Contract Regulations 2015 coming in, and had underestimated the changes that had taken place within public procurement since then.

Rethinking the essential ‘Essentials’…

As you can imagine, at this stage I was feeling very frustrated and disappointed at the lack of suitable applicants, particularly due to the ever-increasing workloads which were building up.

I therefore decided that I would have to review the person specification and see whether there was another way of approaching the recruitment process.

Having pondered over the situation, I started asking myself how important having a qualified CIPS person was. Would it be better to appoint someone who may not be qualified, but who had the enthusiasm and zest to learn – meaning we could mould the person to be what we wanted them to be, as opposed to having someone who might have passed all their exams but may not have any practical experience, or were set in their ways and unwilling to change.

In October 2021 we went back to advert, with a revised person specification. On this occasion we had five applicants – four had no procurement experience whatsoever and one had a little experience as they were working in my team already as a Contracts Officer, but who was not MCIPS qualified.

Following the interview process, I decided that the preferred candidate was the internal one as they were already familiar with end user departments within the organisation; and through observation conducting their Contracts Officer role, had already picked up some basic procurement skills. This individual had not applied previously as the CIPS qualification had been a barrier for them.

On the job learning

Our successful candidate started the interim procurement role in November 2021, and commenced her CIPS studies via the Welsh Government funded programme shortly afterwards. Undertaking her studies in this manner enabled her to use work-based projects as part of her studies where she was able to successfully apply her learning.  Earlier this year she completed her CIPS studies and is now fully qualified.

In my opinion, as long as an individual has an interest in the subject area, a willingness to learn and a can-do attitude, then you are able to mentor and educate them so that they are moulded into the type of person you need within your team.

With the support from the Welsh Government funded CIPS training we were able to grow the talent we knew we needed. It may have taken a bit of extra time mentoring them, but the end result has paid dividends.

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