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By Steve Kelman

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Crafting better jobs for young contracting professionals


I recently participated in a panel at the annual conference ASI Government holds for their government subscribers, mostly contracting folks – and a “gov-only” crowd – on improving the acquisition workforce. (The overall theme of the conference was bridging communications gaps between contracting and program folks, and between government and vendors.) The conference was on a non-attribution basis, so I feel comfortable discussing only what I said myself, which I am sharing in this post.

I began by noting that, while the government has been hiring a lot of entry-level contracting professionals, I am very worried that unless we create interesting, challenging jobs for them, many will quickly leave.

Here’s the dilemma. When I have asked groups of young contracting professionals which kind of job situation they would prefer – one where they were so challenged that they often felt over their heads and not sure if they were doing the right thing or one where they were underchallenged with undemanding, too-simple work – 80% regularly say they’d prefer the first. Yet when older managers hear about young people wanting to be in over their heads, they worry the new hires will make mistakes and thereby create problems for the organization, so they segregate them into overly simple tasks.

I asked whether there were assignments managers could give the young hires that would be challenging while not upping the riskometer too high. I presented some (hopefully) practical suggestions:

  1. Put the new hires on teams dealing with complex procurements: They don’t need to make decisions on these complex procurements themselves, but give them a chance to be exposed to these kinds of challenging buys.
  2. Give the new hires special assignments involving office initiatives such as recommending areas for cost savings or improved procedures. They can provide a fresh eye to such projects and notice things those who’ve been around for a long time won’t. (There’s an old saying: “A fish will never discover water.”)
  3. Encourage them to become subject-matter experts in important areas the agency buys – especially IT (where they have a leg up already on the older folks). Procurement shops need more subject-matter experts anyway, and the young people have skills from college in doing the kind of research required to start becoming a subject-matter expert.
  4. If they are going to be doing simple buys, do something to make the job more interesting. Set up a contest on repetitive buys to see who can get the greatest price improvements over the last time the item was bought. Set a goal to buy 95 percent of items at a price below the lowest price available for the item on the Internet.

Do blog readers, particularly young readers, like these thoughts? Any others?

By the way, while I think agencies should be trying to reduce disenchantment and quick turnover, few of today’s young people have any intention of staying in the same organization their whole careers, the way their parents hoped. The government’s model is still too tied to the old idea of hiring at the entry level and keeping somebody for life.

The government hasn’t adapted to the fact that most young people don’t intend to stay at any job their entire career. The government should take advantage of this by looking to recruit young people who may have been in industry for a few years, and who have more experience and knowledge, for mid-level positions in the government, say at the GS12 or 13 level. The government has been so fixated on the old model of people starting as entry-level employees and staying an entire career that it has only been losing out on increased job mobility among young people, not also gaining from mobile people coming in from other organizations.

Posted on May 03, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, May 10, 2012 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

The technological skills that younger contracting professionals have over more experienced 1102s is a huge chasm, and it needs to be leveraged. Certainly making them IT SMEs and using their research skills for market research can be very important tools to improve contracting organizations. Further, their technological savvy will help them better take advantage of automated contracting solutions that should provide strict rules to workflow and processes, allowing them to learn and not make mistakes before they are caught. Young people are also seen as a threat by more experienced federal workers, as they tend to get promoted faster than perhaps they should. I have seen this happen throughout government. Maybe this resistance to change is holding them back.

Tue, May 8, 2012

These challenges, including turnover, are not Government-unique. The fact that no one has solved these problems indicate the likelihood of the Government's success in addressing them. I left Federal Service to escape the armpit which is Washington DC and move to a more civilized part of the country. Loved my job in DC, though . . .

Tue, May 8, 2012

This situation happens every time it seems. A few at my base had a chance to learn from CO's who wanted to teach, but once people started realizing who we were "Copper Caps" they stopped teaching and giving us tasks that we needed in order to learn. For the past year and a half I have learned very little and I know I enjoy contracting, but I highly doubt I will stay with this organization. I even stopped saying I am a Copper Cap because I just know people think I am a threat somehow. Whatever happen to team work? "One team one fight" right...?

Fri, May 4, 2012

In response to the author's post- it should be noted that across the Government there are GS-13s who only have high school diplomas, meanwhile people with college degrees can get stuck in lower level jobs with no path up.

Fri, May 4, 2012 Steve Kelman

Thanks for all these interesting observations so far. Vern has been promoting the idea of re-creating the old 1105 series, and I completely agree. We should be hiring less-educated, lower-grade level people to do the simple work -- providing them with jobs they may well enjoy and find satisfying -- rather than giving it to others who are likely not to find it satisfying. We should try to get this idea into the OFPP/OPM mix. SPE's or other senior managers, reactions?

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