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

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.

Mon, Mar 29, 2010 Mark Stevens TACOM-Rock Island

I cannot say enough good things about the Contract Specialist training program at Rock Island. It is an intensive, eight week session that provides the necessary foundation for people going into the contracting field. I was impressed with so many aspects of the program. It is taught by an expert contracting professional who provides the tools necessary for each individual to succeed “out on the floor”. Armed with those tools, a secondary eight week program was established to apply that knowledge, to work on actual procurements and to receive individual feedback and additional training. Everyone related to the program has an interest and is heavily involved in how each person is doing. Having worked in private industry for over ten years (and with some large corporations), I have never remotely experienced the training that I have received here in Rock Island. It is an outstanding program that should be duplicated to the greatest extent possible and not only in contracting.

I do have some suggestions for the intern program on the whole. I would like to see the program extended from two years to three along with Level II certification. I know some people do not like the tag of intern but even coming from a person who is an “older” intern, each and every one of us in the program is in a learning stage, despite age and experience. I was a purchasing manager for many years but Government contracting is completely different. It takes a lot of time to learn this profession. There is also a rush to get the certification classes done and having three years would allow people to concentrate more on learning their jobs and, as a result, the classes have more value when a person can relate class content to something they have done in their jobs.

Once I was assigned to my department, PM SKOT, I was busy. While still being in my learning phase, I was assigned work that took advantage of my previous business experience. I worked on things such as negotiations and price analysis, where my background could be of value. I was also teamed with a more experienced intern, so we have learned together, putting our heads together and figuring out solutions. For those who say they have a lot of downtime, I reply by saying they aren’t looking for things to do. There is always something to do around the office. And it may be clerical but people would be surprised how much can be learned by doing clerical tasks such as contract closeouts. Plus, this profession is somewhat clerical by nature. There is a tremendous amount of documentation involved. But when one looks at the scope of what we are involved in, from cradle to grave, there is always some way to contribute on a daily basis. I have found almost everyone in my department is willing to teach and/or willing to offer a helping hand. I cannot imagine it is any different in any other department not only in Rock Island but anywhere.

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