Many feds decide to stick around

Acquisition study finds employees eligible to retire are not leaving the workforce

nnual Report on the Federal Acquisition Workforce (.pdf)

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John Nyce could have retired two years ago after working 30 years in federal acquisition. Instead, he became director of the Acquisition Services Directorate at the Interior Department’s National Business Center.

“I’m not ready to retire. I’ve got more things to do,” Nyce said.

As director, Nyce wants to mold NBC’s five organizations into a cohesive unit. It’s a challenge, he said. One of those organizations — GovWorks, which provides assisted-acquisition services — learned recently that the Defense Department, one of its largest customers, suspended much of its business with the center because of concerns that GovWorks failed to comply with DOD’s procurement rules.

Despite the challenges, Nyce said, he still enjoys his work. “Having been in acquisition for 30 years, I’ve got a passion for this business.”

Nyce’s decision to stick around after 30 years is not unusual. A majority of federal acquisition employees  eligible to retire aren’t retiring, according to the Federal Acquisition Institute’s “Annual Report on the Federal Acquisition Workforce.” FAI found that in fiscal 2006, 83 percent of contracting officers eligible to retire had not done so. That reflects a trend that began in 2000. Since then, the percentage of contracting officers who have eschewed retirement has hovered between 81 percent and 84 percent.

Despite that trend, agency leaders remain concerned that a large retirement wave could decimate the federal acquisition community. The report states that 29 percent of contracting officers will be eligible to retire in 2011. That percentage jumps to 50 percent five years later. The figures are higher in certain agencies. For example, the Energy Department will have 66 percent of its contracting officers eligible to retire by 2016.

For those and other reasons, workforce leaders are eager to figure out ways to transfer experienced employees’ knowledge to less-experienced workers. We don’t want this knowledge base to walk out the door, said Karen Pica, FAI’s director of personnel management.

The FAI report shows another trend. It states that 56 percent of 2,610 contracting officers hired in 2006 came from outside the government. FAI also learned that the average age of a new contracting officer rose slightly to 34 years old, from 33 in 2005.

“It appears that we’re successful in attracting people from outside the government,” Pica said. “Because the average age kind of crept up a little, we must be attracting people [who] have some private-sector experience already. So that’s another population that I would like to look at” for recruiting purposes, she said.

Molly Wilkinson, the General Services Administration’s chief acquisition officer, said having half the contracting officers eligible to retire in nine years could prove disastrous. “We have to look down the road there and say, ‘OK, are we building the capacity to have the trained workforce to deal with that looming retirement?’ ” she said. “I don’t see the work going down. If anything, I see that the workload is going to increase.”

Wilkinson said the quality and the number of people in government acquisition would determine how well agencies do contracting.
GSA and other federal agencies with unmet acquisition needs have begun contacting college graduates, but it has been challenging. “Let me put it this way: You don’t grow up wanting to be a contracting officer,” Nyce said.

A career in acquisition is not well understood, he added. Once he explains the field to students, however, they are convinced that contracting officers are in powerful positions doing work that is anything but routine. Nyce said contracting officers are the only people who can bind the government to a contract worth billions of dollars. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. “You can also go to jail if you do it wrong.”

Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said his strategy for building the federal contracting workforce is to get potential hires onto the Coast Guard cutters they would buy for the government, or into the front lines of forest firefighters for whom they would be purchasing equipment.
FAI’s report states that the government hired more than 2,600 new contracting employees in 2006, an increase of about 350  since 2005 and 1,200 since 2000. The government now has 27,900 contracting officers, up from about 26,600 in 2001.

OFPP is surveying federal employees online to collect information about federal acquisition skills. More than 6,000 civilian contracting officers, or 60 percent of all civilian agencies’ officers, have responded, said Robert Burton, deputy OFPP administrator.

The results, scheduled to be published in late August, will give federal agencies a better idea of the type of people they need and how many of them.
“There is no question that there is a shortage of acquisition workers, but we need to identify the skills needed,” Burton said.
Profile of an expanding contracting workforceAs many as 2,610 employees joined the federal contracting workforce in fiscal 2006. An additional 964 employees moved between agencies, but remained in jobs classified as contracting positions.

The civilian agencies that hired the most contracting officers in fiscal 2006 are:
Homeland Security,  241; Veterans Affairs, 143; General Services Administration, 139; Justice, 130; Interior, 106; Health and Human Services,     86; Agriculture,  7; Treasury, 75; and Transportation, 73.

Total civilian and Defense Department acquisition employees hired in fiscal 2006:  3,574.

Source: Federal Acquistion Institute

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