OPM raises the bar for new COs

The Office of Personnel Management has established new qualifications for civilian agency contracting officers that are designed to create a more highly-trained work force.

As of Jan. 1 1998 new hires for positions in the GS-1102 job category - such as contract administrators contract specialists and procurement analysts - must meet tougher education requirements including a college degree or special training and a combination of graduate courses and work experience depending on the position. These credentials are similar to those that have been required for Defense Department contracting jobs since 1990.

Current employees who do not have this background can still qualify for new positions as long as they have enough work experience according to a memo distributed last week by Mary Lou Lindholm OPM's associate director for employment. But after a two-year grace period those who want to be promoted to jobs above the GS-12 pay grade will have to meet the new education requirements to be selected.

The standards required under the Clinger-Cohen Act are "part of a program of making procurement people the government's business people " said Steven Kelman administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. "I think the improvement we're going to see is a work force that is more likely to be able to make good business decisions and is more qualified to step up to the responsibilities and the empowerment under procurement reform."

Kelman said that because of such reforms as allowing small purchases to be made with credit cards the acquisition work force will be concentrating on more complicated procurements that demand more formal training.

"We are certainly going to need a more educated and skillful work force " said David Litman director of acquisition and grant management with the Transportation Department. "We're requiring people to exercise more discretion and business judgment so it's important to set those standards."

But Litman said employees are concerned that the new requirements will limit their mobility particularly among agencies. He said civilian employees do not have the same training options as DOD workers and it is not clear precisely what level of education or work experience will allow people to qualify for transfers or promotions.

"I know procurement was often a good upward-mobility vehicle [from clerical jobs] and [it was] used that way " he said. "That is the concern of some people about the degree requirement. A lot of them are very talented people and have good business judgment so you have to be careful you don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

OPM does not keep statistics on how much education and training current federal employees have received already an agency spokeswoman said. Administration officials believe that most younger workers - those under age 40 - are likely to have college degrees.

The professional contracting community has been moving toward requiring more training for its members for some time said Donna Ireton national vice president for education and certification with the National Contracts Management Association (NCMA). To become certified as a professional contracts manager by the group applicants must have a bachelor's degree have taken additional courses and pass a written test.

"We're very supportive of the standard " Ireton said.

In a letter sent to OPM last month NCMA national vice president David Hall asked the agency to count passing the group's exam as the equivalent of the new requirement for post-college training for positions at the GS-13 level and higher.

Ireton said NCMA has not yet received a response to the letter.

While the exact education requirements for contracting positions will vary with the job new applicants generally must have either a bachelor's degree or have taken courses in business or legal subjects. To be hired for jobs above the GS-12 level applicants must show they have completed additional training and worked in contracting or related positions for at least four years.

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