TheLectern

By Steve Kelman

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Are we wasting the talents of our new government contracting hires?

As readers of this blog can likely guess, I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I recently met with a group of newly hired contract specialists at an important federal agency, and it was a somewhat depressing experience. One of the biggest challenges the procurement system faces is bringing a new generation of young contracting professionals into the system, and this agency, at least, is having problems.

The most obvious problem that emerged from the meeting was that the new hires -- those who have started their jobs within the last year -- are being dramatically underused just in terms of their time. Almost all reported that they have gotten few assignments and that their days were filled with downtime. One said that it was strange to move from a high-pressure, high-activity campus environment into a place where she had little work to do. The new hires reported that their supervisors and other senior people seemed to be either too busy to mentor them and bring them into their teams, or didn't seem to regard this as a priority. (If the more senior people are too busy, they should understand the basic idea behind the notion of an "investment," in which one pays a cost now to receive returns down the road.) A number of the new hires were working mostly on de-obligations, some of the most clerical and mind-numbing work a contracting person can do.

But there were other problems as well. In general, the training the new people were getting seemed somewhat minimalist, and none was learning anything about the products or services they were buying. (As a start, I urged them to take out subscriptions to Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News; they all wrote down the Web addresses, and I think these publications are about to get five new subscribers.) When we talked about how one should deal with a customer who wants to buy something sole source, one of the new hires suggested telling the customer about Federal Acquisition Regulation requirements, making me fear that a new generation of bureaucrats might be being born.

One final distressing thing was that one of the new hires, a part of an elite agency-wide contracting internship program, stated she had no idea before she actually started on the job that the position she was being hired for involved government contracting! (She had been an international relations major in college.) This case may be an outlier, but it is an HR truism that successful transition to a new job is easier, the more the person knows about the job before taking it, and this example doesn't speak well of how we are doing on that score.

There is a little good news in this story. The organization of which these new hires is a part realizes they have a problem, and have now assigned an experienced contracting professional to work fulltime helping these young people out. However, the problem at the end of the day can only be solved by the supervisors and senior contracting officers in the units to which these new hires have been assigned.

I have no idea how common or unusual these problems are. I know, at the other end, that the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy, about which I have blogged a number of times in the past, takes a very different approach to bringing new hires on board. I would be curious to hear from other contracting organizations, and particularly from any new hires who might see this blog, about how people are dealing with taking advantage of the talent our new hires represent.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 23, 2010 at 12:08 PM


Reader comments

Wed, Aug 27, 2014 David Frazier France

As a 30-year veteran of government contracting, I agree with the premise of the article. I recall meeting the author many years ago, when he led the FAR Council. I have a new book that uncovers many of the problems in the contracting system today including collusion between government and industry to limit competition. It is called A Survival Guide for Government Contractors and is available here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/govcontracting

Mon, Jul 11, 2011 Danielle Frederick, MD

I have been trying hard to break into the contracting field and have had no success. Does anyone have any advice? I do live near Ft. Detrick and would love to start my career out there or at the VA. Please, any advice is welcome. Thanks.

Wed, May 12, 2010

The May 3 post reflects what many of us have experienced, mine is the following minus a few items: "It depends on what agency you work for and if the supervisor you are assigned to wants to help you...I went to formal contracting courses which taught me alot, but when I returned to my agency I was told over and over "thats not how we do it here". I was assigned a mentor but never had a meeting with him...he was always out of the office. For one year all I did was do simple phone calls, and punch holes in solicitations 'make copies and match electronic to hard file data'. After one year, I took job with another agency and not as an intern and it has been night and day. I am receiving training and learning alot with contracting...no more hole punching!"
Same thing here, leaving was the best move I ever made. If you are in contracting and don't care for your current situation be it lack of training, personnel or management style, etc, LEAVE quickly. There are many shops willing to provide you with the necessary foundational tools, learning and experience to develop the contracting skillset needed to become an acquisition professional. There are also shops with good managers that care about personnel and provide a positive work place environment.

Mon, May 3, 2010

It depends on what agency you work for and if the supervisor you are assigned to wants to help you. As for my experience, my supervisor didn't expect me the first day. My cubical location was not with the team I was assigned to so it was difficult to get training. I went to formal contracting courses which taught me alot, but when I returned to my agency I was told over and over "thats not how we do it here". I was assigned a mentor but never had a meeting with him...he was always out of the office. For one year all I did was do simple phone calls, and punch holes in solicitations. After one year, I took job with another agency and not as an intern and it has been night and day. I am receiving training and learning alot with contracting...no more hole punching!

Mon, Apr 5, 2010

"Interns" are still called as such even as GS-12s. That's part of the problem. They've tried to change verbiage at my agency but it will never take root. But really, we are just professionals learning our jobs the same as every other person does. It’s just that we are in programs that make it more efficient. I’ve noticed that direct hires at the same grade in my agency sometimes get more substantive work. I can only chalk that up to the “intern” label and the fact that supervisors know we are out the door after our year with them is up. It depends on the supervisor and agency of course. Another point is that our Contracting Officers, nice as they are, are simply too overburdened to hold our hands. Ironically, that’s why we interns are here - to help alleviate that burden and replace them when they retire. I think they want to invest, but just don’t have the capacity to do so while meeting the more immediate mission at the same time. I agree with what the agency you spoke of did, that is, giving the intern team a full-time helper Contracting Officer to aid them in getting things ready for the contract’s CO. It's an approach that would help all parties and support the point of the interns.

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