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By Steve Kelman

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Throwing people at the acquisition workforce problem isn't enough

There is an interesting feature comment on the efforts to increase the size of the acquisition workforce in the latest issue of The Government Contractor, one of the high-priced newsletters that follows government contracting issues.  (It's not available online, so I can't provide a link.)  Called "Throwing People at the Problem -- Massive Hiring will not Revitalize the Acquisition Workforce," it's written by Vern Edwards, a veteran contracting trainer and commentator. I sometimes disagree with him, but he is always worth reading.

He notes that government finally does seem to be hiring contracting employees. I noticed this during my recent visit to Los Angeles Air Force Base, which had dramatically ramped up hiring just in the last year. But he is worried that simply hiring people may actually make contracting problems worse. That's an exaggeration, in my view, but nonetheless his grounds for worry are sensible.
His first worry -- and the one with which I most strongly agree -- is that unless we make contracting jobs more appealing  we won't keep the young people we hire. Much of the work these people are doing is quasi-clerical, such as ordering products under existing contracts and processing paperwork, Edwards found. That work is below the skill level of the well-educated people being brought into these jobs.

Edwards' proposed solution is interesting: Have more of this work done by purchasing agents (government classification 1105 series, rather than 1102 series), who don't need college degrees. People in this job classification, whose main responsibility currently is making small purchases using government purchase cards, could do a lot of this routine work. 
The old hands in contracting shops also simply need to bite the bullet and give the young people more responsibility. Agencies must empower them more, or else lose them to employers who will.  And the politicians need to realize that each increment of bureaucracy and of fear they impose on the system inhibits the ability to keep the new recruits.
I am less convinced about Edwards' other worries. He seems to think that the current senior workforce is so bad that advice and informal on-the-job training they pass on to young people will simply transmit bad practices to a new generation. Obviously, it's impossible to generalize about something as variable as the quality of the contracting workforce, but I think a lot of the supervisors are good contracting professionals, although often poor at being supervisors, particularly on crucial dimensions of mentoring and inspiring the new recruits. 

It may be difficult to teach some of these old(er) dogs new tricks, but I would place a priority on encouraging supervisors to develop such skills so they are in a better position to transmit their technical knowledge. Likewise, I am not as negative on the quality of training many of the new hires are getting.  It is certainly a vast improvement on the Federal Acquisition Regulation mastery skills that were what introductory training used to involve. Some places, such as the Veterans Affairs Academy, seem to be doing a great job.
We do need to "throw people" at the acquisition workforce problem.  But I agree with Edwards that won't solve the problem by itself.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 21, 2009 at 12:08 PM

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Reader comments

Tue, Sep 1, 2009 steve kelman

These are really interesting comments, and I thank the contracting professionals who have taken the time to write them. I also am deeply aware that I myself am not "in the trenches," which means that I especially welcome the perspectives of those who are. I definitely agree with the comments about requirements and "big A" acquisition. On the kids, my view is that we should err on the side of taking a chance on them and giving them meaningful job responsibilities sooner rather than later, including promotions.

Mon, Aug 31, 2009 k

I too respect both of these men but I don't believe they are actually IN the trenches. I am and have been since I was 19. I am 51 years old, have been in the 1100 series since 1977, worked from the bottom up, Procurement Clerk, Purchasing Agent, Contract Specialist, Contracting Officer. I was DAWIA Level III certified in the 80's and held an unlimited Contracting Officers Warrant for DoD. Unfortunately, I left DoD in 1999. As I lack a college degree, I am no longer a "qualifed" 1102. In 2000 a college degree, carrying a minimum of 24 hours of business was levied on the Acquisition workforce. Existing employees were not grandfathered (except DoD) which meant no promotion potential without a degree, experience did NOT count. I am NOT alone as there are hundreds of us who carry over 20 years of experience, alot of the workload yet have no opportunity for advancement. We get to train these interns for jobs we have worked our whole lives for, but will never get. The interns are being promoted quickly, frequently from a GS-9 to a GS-12 in 2 years, and in-between training sessions, they are rotated through different offices. Being "an old hand" I know that 2 years of sparatic experience, school book training and a GS-12 does NOT make a well rounded 1102. Promoting these young people so quickly is doing a dis-service to them, to us, and, to the taxpayer. I won't deny they are smart, energetic, and ambitious, they are not, however, seasoned Contract Specialists. The Government promotes them to keep them, but dosen't realize these young people have no clear understanding of the complexities in Government contracting. They frequently are not in one office long enough to see the whole process through. These youngsters are promoted so quickly they don't KNOW that their knowledge base is lacking. They are not stupid, they lack experience. I have seen a few "interns", that in 7 years of Government service, have gone from a GS-9 to a GS-15, and they had not yet reached 30. So they leave and why not? They are "topped out" before they are "middle aged" so they take their retirement, tout a GS-15 Government Contracting Officer, FAC-C certified, and go play in the private sector sandbox with a hefty promotion. Like I said, they are smart.

Mon, Aug 31, 2009

The title of this article mentions "acquisition" and then proceeds to speak almost exclusively about procurement which is only a portion of "Acquistion." I have a few thoughts on the subject. 1. When I started in procurement, I was told it would take two years before I would begin to understand it. A statement which was remarkably prophetic. It took another 2-3 years before I was competent and ready for even a limited warrant. Adding new people in contracting now will only begin to show results in 3-5 years. 2. Edwards is right that you have procurements professionals doing quasi-clerical work but he needs to take it a step farther. With the archaic contract processing systems in some agencies, in many cases, you have Contracting Officers functioning as expensive clerks; building and labeling award folders, doing manual distribuion of award documents, and other routine functions which could easily be handled by a Procurement Specialist or eliminated with a proper, well executed use of technology. 3. A procurement is only as good as the requirements developed by the customer. Contracting professionals, new or otherwise, cannot buy (and vendors cannot quote) what the customer cannot define. Any change has to be across "big 'A'" Acquistion, not just in procurement. Recognizing the problems facing the Acquistion workforce is a good first step, but only a first step. The next step is to get down in "the trenches" and find out the difficulties these folks face so they can remedied before the system collapses. Thank you.

Fri, Aug 28, 2009 anon

First, let me say I respect both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kelman. In regards to Mr. Kelman view of staffing, I believe all of the buying centers are short-staffed. We need more contracting professionals. I think Mr. Kelman's rationale that young/new professionals leave because they aren't empowered is incorrect. The new professionals are from a different generation and are more interested in financial gain than professional gain and therefore leave for more monetary benefits. I do agree that the all the rules changes does make entering this field more unattractive. In regards to the Mr. Edwards position, I enjoy Mr. Edwards views in Wifcon and other articles. However, I wonder how well Mr. Edwards would do if he was to return to the operations side of contracting today. It is so frustrating to hear all of these opinions from non-contracting professionals about how inadequate the contracting workforce is today. I'm in my 30's and have been doing contracting for at least 9 years. The rules have changed so much in those years. The type of procurements has also become more complex. The workforce isn't incompetent. I wish Mr. Edwards can write an article that stress that position.

Thu, Aug 27, 2009

professor,do you think that harvard university is a place just for elite?Do you belive that a student without high scores and perfect work experience still has a chance to study in this university?how could a student having a strong hope but not being adequate to study here get a chance to study here?

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