Shopping for Uncle Sam
Rick Gunderson’s internship programs at the Transportation Security Administration are a promising means of filling federal acquisition positions with qualified employees
- By Jason Miller
- Oct 25, 2007
Rick Gunderson came to the Transportation Security Administration with a mission to build a workforce that could manage the agency’s acquisition workload, which had grown to more than $1 billion a year.
When he arrived at TSA in 2002, the assistant administrator for acquisition had a staff of about 30. He needed more employees in a hurry. Gunderson faced a situation common among federal acquisition officials: Could he find employees to meet the agency’s needs?
Gunderson didn’t know whether enough qualified employees existed, especially after a decade in which the government had eliminated many acquisition jobs.
The Government Accountability Office reported that the number of federal acquisition workers fell by half in the past decade, while, during roughly the same period, federal agencies doubled their procurement spending to more than $400 billion a year.
Governmentwide, the staffing predicament that Gunderson faced five years ago at TSA hasn’t improved significantly. Acquisition offices are still understaffed, and officials are worried that staff shortages will get worse with the wave of retiring baby boomers. Retirements could hit hard at the Defense Department, which estimates that 76 percent of its acquisition workforce will be eligible to retire in the next decade. Civilian agencies face a less dramatic but still significant retirement dilemma. About 50 percent of civilian agency acquisition workers could retire in the next 10 years.
Yet despite those demographic trends, some procurement experts say the acquisition workforce is not in as bad a shape as many people might think, primarily because of the efforts of TSA and other agencies to rebuild it. “We are aggressively increasing the acquisition workforce,” said Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP).
The Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) reported that the number of acquisition employees increased to 59,997 in fiscal 2006, compared with 59,477 in 2005. They include contracting officers and specialists, program and project managers, and contracting officer technical representatives. The number of acquisition employees has steadily increased since 1999, but the government has gained only 1,600 employees.
Meanwhile, the number of acquisition employees who retired or left government increased to 6,991 in 2006, compared with 6,348 in 2001, FAI reported.
Overall, federal agencies gained about 538 acquisition employees in 2006, basically keeping pace with reductions. Yet while acquisition workforce numbers remained flat, agency procurement spending increased to $400 billion in 2006, compared with $200 billion in 2000.
“We are challenged to stay balanced and keep the levels we have,” said David Litman, the Transportation Department’s senior procurement executive and chairman of the Chief Acquisition Officers Council’s Workforce Committee. “The biggest challenge is filling the pipeline with people and finding ways to keep them.” Internships at TSA
Gunderson has experimented with ways to attract and retain acquisition employees. Through several innovative programs, he has helped raise TSA’s acquisition workforce count to 120, and he plans to add at least 20 more employees.
TSA started a three-year internship program that offers classroom training and on-the-job experience. At the end of the program, the former interns are certified as contracting officers. Gunderson said 18 interns from the first intern class became TSA employees.
A second internship program, which TSA started in 2006, resembles a boot camp. Interns go through an intense eight-month program to learn the basics of federal acquisition. They participate in a variety of simulations before receiving any on-the-job training.
After being assigned to an acquisition office, they receive additional classroom training, online coursework and mentoring for three years before they become certified as contracting officers.
“The first class was successful, but bringing in another 18 to 20 junior-level folks when you already had that number, we couldn’t ensure they would receive the right mentoring and support,” Gunderson said. “Our chief of staff at the time suggested a boot camp scenario, and that took off.”
TSA put another 18 interns through a boot camp internship in 2006. Through both internship programs, the agency now has been able to acquire 36 junior-level acquisition employees in a short time.
“The boot camp was appealing because it focused on developing and integrating you into the office,” said Kerry Toscano, a new TSA acquisition employee who participated in the intern boot camp. “It was really intense because it was your job 40 hours a week for eight months.”
Melany Pollock, another new TSA acquisition worker, took part in the agency’s traditional three-year internship program. She said the program gave her opportunities to develop public-speaking and writing skills and made her feel that she was doing important work.
Once the interns finish their respective programs, they will have achieved Level II certification in accordance with Federal Acquisition Certification - Contracting, and would be well on there way to becoming contracting officers, but they cannot sign contracts on behalf of the government.
Other agencies observed TSA’s success with internship programs and plan to build on those efforts. In addition, several organizations are collaborating with FAI to develop an agencywide civilian acquisition internship program. Those organizations — the Office of Personnel Management and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council (CAOC) — established a career and internship coalition to gather agency best practices and develop tools for recruiting potential acquisition employees, said Karen Pica, FAI’s director.
Pica said OPM and FAI conducted a focus group in which they asked participants what the perfect internship program would look like, and the organizations are basing their plans on what they learned from the focus group.
Where’s the sizzle?
Various agency acquisition internship programs have brought more than 1,200 interns into the government in the past three years, and about 90 percent of them have remained in the federal workforce after their internships ended, Denett said.
But acquisition experts say more can be done to hire and retain acquisition employees. Litman would like to see more effort to sell the sizzle of a federal acquisition career.
“We need to be more proactive in recruiting and tying the career field to agency missions so people understand how their work contributes to the agency’s mission,” Litman said. “We need formal mentoring and rotational programs. We need to expand the structured experience into midcareer and senior-career levels.”
Pica agreed that agencies must create a strong identity for the acquisition profession. “We will develop a career path model and post it on our Web site,” she said. “We also want to share success stories.”
Room for innovation
Steve Kelman, a former OFPP administrator who is now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a columnist for Federal Computer Week, said acquisition training is important. “You want a creative workforce, and people need to be well-trained to do that,” he said. “The government has to recruit people and promote the fun and interesting parts of the job.”
Kelman said agencies need to improve their acquisition training in areas such as cost and pricing analysis, negotiation, acquisition planning, performance metrics and contract incentive structures. But, he added, a lack of proper training only partly explains the contracting mistakes and project failures that cost the government millions of dollars. Having too few employees to handle the workload is a major source of acquisition failures, he said.
“By and la r e, they are doing these gs because it is either a workload issue, or they are trying to be responsive to their customer,” Kelman said. “They end up using shortcuts because they don’t have enough time to do their work.”
Workforce shortfalls create their own vicious circle, Kelman said. “We have a death spiral in the procurement system where we don’t have enough people. Mistakes get reported by various overseers, and that creates more paperwork and reviews. Everything takes longer, and there is less willingness to be innovative.”
Denett said he is working with lawmakers and their staff members to address federal acquisition training issues. Bush administration officials want to extend and increase the formula for FAI’s Acquisition Training Fund, which Congress created in the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003, he said.
“We are meeting with congressional staffers to come up with an adequate amount for the training fund,” Denett said. “GSA also is seeing if it can give additional resources and money to FAI.” Policy memos
OFPP has focused on training and certification as ways in which the government can build a qualified acquisition workforce. Denett and Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at OMB, have signed several policy memos this year to address training and workforce needs. The most recent memo, issued in September, urges agencies to rehire retired acquisition experts to mentor younger employees. A second memo, released in April, establishes project and program manager certification requirements. A third memo, distributed in January, requires FAI and the CAOC to develop a certification program for contracting professionals in civilian agencies.
Some experts say training efforts are frequently misplaced. Gregory Garrett, chief operating officer at Acquisition Solutions, which provides acquisition support to agencies, said there are too few senior-level acquisition courses to satisfy the demand.
“There is a lot of basic training, but very little has been done to put together an entire professional development program,” Garrett said. “Agencies also need to invest in industry training programs so they understand how the other side of the business equation works.”
Officials responsible for acquisition workforce training said results from two recent surveys of workforce skills and competencies will help the government develop training programs that are better targeted to fill specific needs.
“In many respects, it will verify what we already know,” Denett said. “We need to accelerate training in certain areas and provide new training in others. It also will open up our eyes to what skill gaps the departments have so they can know how best to spend their training dollars.”
DOD’s acquisition workforce remained relatively flat at about 128,000 employees for the past six years. During that period, however, its procurement budget doubled.
DOD is conducting a similar acquisition workforce assessment. “If we act with a sense of deliberateness and capture the right information in our workforce analysis and assessment, we have time to put smart initiatives in place” to solve the workforce problem, said Frank Anderson, president of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU).
OPM and FAI also would be smart to look at DOD’s long-established intern programs, which have helped the services maintain their acquisition workforce numbers, Anderson said.
Each service has its own acquisition intern program to help meet its workforce demands. DAU provides additional training for military and civilian acquisition employees. The Navy, for example, had 300 people in its program, each of whom will begin their careers at the equivalent pay of a General Schedule 7 employee, Anderson said.
“We all feel the pain of finding well-qualified entry-level people,” he said, adding that DAU is considering a departmentwide acquisition training program that could help all the services.
Workforce assessment surveys
Many procurement experts agree that workforce assessment is a necessary first step, but they question whether the government is spending enough money on training. FAI had about $8 million in its training fund in 2006. It spent about $2.5 million from the training fund to have DAU develop courses that both training institutions can use.
Pica said many federal employees benefited from the fund since Congress established it in 2004. More than 20,000 students took online training courses, and 9,000 received classroom training.
Denett said more funding for training funding would help, but he said every agency can offer some form of training. “With online training and brown-bag lunches or symposiums, shame on anyone who says they don’t have training money.”
Anderson said his organization’s $100 million training fund makes long-term planning easier. “We know what we have each year,” he said, which results in better training programs.
Anderson said DOD is developing tools and models that should help it determine the right size for its acquisition workforce. He said he expects that DOD will introduce programs late this year or in early 2008 that will address its workforce needs.
Agencies’ success at promoting federal acquisition as a career field remains a challenge.
“If I can help the government save money and time, it is fun,” Pollock said. “If I keep getting complex work, it will help me stay in the field. I do look forward to coming to work every day because I don’t know what will happen. This is definitely not a slow-moving job.”
Capt. Dean Richter, a Navy program manager in the Program Executive Office of the Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence Warfare Office, said he recently joined the acquisition workforce after spending most of his career as a submarine commander. Richter said the acquisition career field provides stability for his family now that he has retired from the service.
The way to hire and keep a qualified workforce is the obvious way, Richter said. “We need to focus on education and promotion opportunities. We don’t have trouble recruiting people. We just are in a constant state of change, and we have to manage that change.”
Some procurement experts say federal acquisition is finally getting the attention it deserves. “The future is getting brighter,” Pica said. “Because we are focusing on the workforce and because Congress is asking questions and raising awareness, we are beginning to address the recruitment, training and retention challenges.”
Acquisition workforce numbers
Hiring and retention statistics show that growth in the federal acquisition workforce has been flat since 2001 while the total procurement dollars that the workforce must manage has nearly doubled. (all dollars in billions)
|Total procurement budget|
Source: Federal Acquisition Institute and the Federal Procurement Data System
An update on the SARA panel's workforce recommendations (pdf)