THE RECRUITMENT PAGES of newspapers are crowded with vacancies for purchasers and merchandisers. A survey by the Vocational Training Council counted more than 10,000 advertisements over a recent three-month period, accounting for more than 18 per cent of jobs on offer. But education and training is failing to keep up with the demand even as Hong Kong envisages becoming the region's 'purchasing centre', the Institute of Purchasing and Supply Hong Kong (IPSHK) cautions. As a result, most of the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 purchasers working in the field are woefully underqualified, according to Stephen Chan, chairman of the IPSHK's programmes committee, which organises training courses. Estimates are that only 1,500 to 2,000 practising professionals in Hong Kong have received formal training. 'It's amazing when you look at the number of openings. They demonstrate that demand for purchasers is rising and the profession is on an upward trend. But education and training are not sufficient,' Mr Chan said. The institute has urged Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to invest more resources in education in the field. 'The government should pay more attention to this industry or Hong Kong's reputation as the regional purchasing centre might be compromised,' warned Mr Chan. At the root of the dilemma is the fact that, as a result of the economic downturn in recent years, many companies have downgraded educational requirements for purchasers - meaning they can pay them lower salaries. 'Except for big corporations, the government, universities and public utilities that require at least diploma-level education, most companies do not require newcomers to have qualifications anymore,' Mr Chan said. 'With the economic downturn, many companies have trimmed their staff structures, and purchasing is one profession that has suffered. 'Companies simply require purchasers to have technical know-how of their specific products. In electronics, you need to know about electronics; in fashion, you need to know about clothing accessories and fabrication processes and so on. 'Knowing the product is considered most important. They say purchasing skills can be learned by experience. But of course we disagree.' Mr Chan insisted that purchasing was a far more exacting discipline and required more than merely product knowledge. 'You need to learn how to manage suppliers and contracts, procurement, tendering, benchmarking and quality assurance,' he said. 'In the old days, you had to study a lot of commercial subjects, from mercantile law and accounting to marketing, supplier relationship and distribution management. 'Communications skills were important and ethics has always been a major issue, so legal training was important. Buyers who fail to meet ethical requirements can easily be sued or prosecuted. 'From time to time you see abuses of the system through unethical practices because people are not properly trained. They do not realise the importance of their role. I am not saying that most people are not good. It's just that a certain percentage do not observe professional codes of conduct.' Mr Chan said proficiency in many aspects of the field was critical to meet the ultimate goal of the purchaser, which is to satisfy the 'five rights' - right quantity, right quality, right price, right place and right time. He blamed companies' responses to the economic downturn for falling standards. 'These days companies are more focused on short-term results. They do not want to pay for expensive training courses, and would rather have people on the cheap, training them to be purchasers at the workplace. 'This seems to be the trend, and we don't like to see it. Having sufficient trained people for the industry would help Hong Kong's overall reputation.' More training would also help individuals in their careers. 'Having skills with one product is not useful if you want to switch jobs and industries. With generic purchasing skills, it is easy to move from one industry to another.' The IPSHK does not believe only initial tertiary education in purchasing needs uplifting. Ongoing training is also important to continually upgrade purchasers' skills and knowledge. But education options are extremely limited. The Institute of Vocational Education has taken over from the former Hong Kong Polytechnic (now university) in providing three-year courses in purchasing and supply-chain management for college graduates, leading to certificates, higher certificates and higher diplomas. The IPSHK also supports the Baptist University's diploma programmes, while running two evening course options with the Hong Kong Productivity Council. One, leading to a Professional Diploma in Strategic Purchasing and Supply Chain Management, is for juniors who have passed the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and have at least two years' experience in the industry. The other, leading to an Executive Diploma in Global Sourcing Practices, is for more experienced professionals to upgrade their skills. But even persuading professionals to upgrade their know-how is difficult. 'The problem is that purchasers need to travel a lot, especially these days with most supplies being manufactured in China, and particularly southern China,' Mr Chan said. 'They do not have time to sit down, never mind finding time to study.' Junior purchasers start on about $7,000 a month, while senior purchasing managers earn $50,000 to $60,000.