FAA opens Mentor-Protege to broaden contractor base

The Federal Aviation Administration last week launched its own Mentor-Protege program aimed at helping small businesses garner a greater share of agency contracts through partnerships with prime contractors.

As part of the FAA Mentor-Protege program contractors will partner with socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses historically black colleges and universities minority institutions and women-owned small businesses. The new FAA program mirrors existing Defense Department and NASA mentor-protege programs.

FAA Mentor-Protege is an effort to broaden the agency's contractor base and make it easier for small businesses to work on FAA contracts said Inez Williams special assistant for small-business utilization at the FAA.

Even though the FAA is free from many federal regulations including the Competition in Contracting Act and the Small Business Act the agency wants to make certain that all businesses can compete for business as part of the FAA's procurement process Williams said. The FAA will report to Congress in two years on what it has accomplished under acquisition reform she said. A component of that self-assessment will be the impact the reform has had on small businesses.

Although the Mentor-Protege program is not limited to technology programs the FAA sees the most benefit for small businesses.

"We see what we are going to do with automation and new equipment and these are areas where we want to broaden our procurement base " Williams said. "Sometimes the agency awarded such large contracts that small businesses felt shut out from the process. When we look at the magnitude of a given requirement it may be that small businesses on their own can't meet that challenge."

The majority of high-technology firms are small businesses with 15 people or fewer Williams said. "There is a lot of talented expertise in small businesses but [we] would be skeptical of awarding a multimillion-dollar contract to a five-man team " she said. "If we don't grow our contractor base we will look around and there will be only one or two firms that can respond to our procurements. That's not what we want."Small-business advocates responded positively to the FAA effort.

"Overall we would be supportive of anything that would be helpful to small businesses " said Judith Roussel associate administrator for government contracting at the Small Business Administration. Both SBA and industry sources agreed that the FAA has a good reputation for giving small businesses work. The agency said in fiscal 1996 that 12 percent of its $1.9 billion in procurement obligations went to 8(a)-certified firms. Another 12 percent went to small disadvantaged businesses.

In general mentor-protege programs have been successful said Devon Hewitt a lawyer with Shaw Pittman Potts and Trowbridge. However "some contractors are better than others. SAIC Lockheed Martin [and] MCI are some who are sophisticated and are successful in fulfilling their subcontracting goals " she said. "The success of the relationship depends on the commitment of the prime."

Sam Meals a consultant at Information Technology Planning Inc. said many small businesses have the technical skills to work on complex FAA contracts but may not have the name recognition to allow them to get larger contracts. "This will allow the FAA to have more contractors that can step up to bigger and better things " he said.

For more information on the program contact www.faa.gov/sbo.

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