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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