Punch-out: Contractors vs. feds

Government contractors and federal employees square off on the issue of federal staffing

President Barack Obama has raised a ruckus among FCW readers with his proposal to save $900 million in fiscal 2010 by converting 33,500 defense contractor jobs to federal positions (see story, Page 10). As might be expected, contractors and feds see the issue in starkly differently terms. Here is an aggregated summary of each position, with the words and sentiments drawn from reader comments.

CONTRACTORS:

President Obama better check his math.

Consider this: As contractors, we work 2,080 hours a year, and the government does not have to pay for benefits, holidays, vacations, breaks with pay, or even lunch. We pay everything out of our pockets. In fact, if you figure in the long-term benefits, many feds actually make more than contractors who have a higher base salary.

Here’s another equation the Obama team should study: Government employees with full benefits gets 432 hours off with pay per year. That means you would need to hire more than 40,000 feds to get the same work hours you got from the 33,500 contractors.

But it’s not just about the money. I don’t think Obama gets what contractors do for the government.

In an ideal world, government workers, as subject-matter experts, would produce as much or more than contractors. But anyone who has worked in the government knows it isn’t that way. Contract employees work harder, walk faster and accomplish more than the government workers.

The difference is most apparent in the afternoon. When 3:30 rolls around, feds are gone in a puff of smoke, leaving things until the next day. As a contractor, I usually put in more daily hours than my government counterpart, and no, I don’t get paid overtime.

I always hear things like, "It'll be there tomorrow" and "Good enough or close enough for government work." The best one is, "I'm a GS, it'll take an act of Congress to get rid of me.” Federal employees seem to get comfortable with the fact that there is almost nothing they can do to get themselves fired, while contractors can be let go at any time.
 
Converting contractor jobs to in-house positions is not the answer to ineffective government. Getting rid of non-performing feds is.

FEDS:

This is a long-overdue initiative to modestly correct the hollowing out of the government workforce.

It’s a problem particularly in acquisition and other areas that are close to being inherently governmental. I see wasted direction and effort in some organizations because there are so many contractors making what should be government decisions. I’ve even seen fighting among in-house contractors looking to increase their company’s share!

The idea of mandating limits on the percentage of contractors in the workforce, as some people have suggested, misses the mark. But we could save ourselves a lot of trouble by evaluating which positions should be contracted out and which should be kept in house.

We could also save a lot of money. Contractors who argue they actually cost less over the course of 2,080 hours are misinformed. Contract rates are often one and a half to two and a half times the actual cost of an equivalent government employee. That is one reason why contractors should be used only for work that is short term and highly specialized.

Another reason is that contractors have a high turnover rate, which is a problem especially in work that requires substantial on-the-job training. We feds might be ineffective, incompetent and wasteful, but we still retain the corporate knowledge needed to train the contractors spinning through the revolving door.

Here’s one more thing a lot of people fail to realize: As a federal employee, I do things because of loyalty that go way beyond my job description. Contractors, on the other hand, won’t move an inch unless it specifically states it in the contract to go an inch. If going 1.5 inches makes things better, well, a whole lot of negotiations have to occur first. Where are the savings there?

Contracting out for some government services has grown out of control. It is time for a reality check.

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