In search of contracting officers

Coalition initiative targets college students to relieve strain on acquisition workforce

6 recruiting strategies

The Federal Acquisition Intern Coalition will conduct a broad recruiting campaign to bring college graduates into the federal contracting workforce. The coalition plans to use a variety of recruiting techniques, including:

1. Explaining in clear language the importance and function of acquisition workers.

2. Maintaining an online database of contracting internships and jobs.

3. Holding job fairs at college campuses with the Partnership for Public Service.

4. Explaining the advantages of working for the government, such as good retirement and insurance benefits, rapid job advancement and relatively competitive pay.

5. Hiring interns into General Schedule 7 and 8 pay level contracting positions.

6. Taking a hands-on approach to teaching interns about federal contracting procedures.

Federal agencies have launched a new organization to raise interest among college students to enter federal contracting careers. However, some observers say the initiative may not be enough to relieve a shortage of federal contracting officers.

Leaders of the new Federal Acquisition Intern Coalition said their goal is to convince young people in college that federal contracting is an important and interesting career. The coalition’s members are the Federal Acquisition Institute, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget.

“It serves as a model for the rest of the community where we have critical positions that we’ll need to fill, refill and develop the people who are in those positions,” said OPM Director Linda Springer at the coalition’s Web site launch Jan. 30.

The site provides information about what federal contracting officials do in their jobs, and visitors can search 1,400 job openings and internships governmentwide.

They can also learn more about job fairs at about 500 college campuses. The coalition plans to sponsor the job fairs with help from the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that supports projects designed to attract the best and brightest people to careers in government.

The coalition’s initiative to attract college students to federal acquisition careers comes at a critical time. The Federal Acquisition Institute has reported that the number of acquisition employees in the government has remained flat since 2001.

Hiring merely kept pace with people retiring or leaving government. In contrast, annual procurement spending increased from $200 billion to more than $400 billion between 2000 and 2006.

The coalition will work with acquisition interns to prepare them for federal acquisition careers, said Donna Jenkins, acquisition workforce manager at the Homeland Security Department. Interns will receive peer mentoring. Coalition members are also considering offering an interactive site, similar to the popular Facebook application, through which federal acquisition interns could communicate.

Training and retaining early-career contracting officials is a challenge for the federal government, said Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. “You don’t retain [contracting officers] by handing them a copy of the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] and sending them off in a corner and telling them to read for six months,” he said. “In today’s job market, you have to get them excited, you have to give them meaningful contracts to work with and let them bond with program managers.”

Former OFPP Administrator Angela Styles praised the coalition’s initiative as a good first step. However to strengthen the acquisition workforce, agencies must also recruit middle- and upper-level contracting officers, she said. “This is not just an entry-level issue,” Styles said. “Acquisition people are needed at all levels of the government.”

Some federal agencies are beginning to recruit veterans and retired private-sector employees as contracting officers.

However, more aggressive steps are needed, Styles said. The federal government should conduct a public advertising campaign, eliminate the requirement of a college degree and determine a new method of compensation so that contracting officers are paid more than they receive now as they move up the management ladder, she added.  

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