Acquisition jobs a tough sell to would-be feds

Bureaucracy, lack of prestige drive away potential acquisition workers

With the summer hiring season getting under way, the federal government would appear to be in a perfect position to expand the ranks of its acquisition workforce, if only it could stop driving away potential hires.

The workforce and the spending

In this uncertain economy, job seekers’ thoughts are turning to the government. At the same time, the government needs to add to its acquisition workforce.

The number of contracting officers who can sign a contract obligating federal dollars and the amount of those obligated dollars have been vastly out of proportion for years. Experts say the lopsided ratio is stressing current employees and making others question the wisdom of joining the federal acquisition workforce, especially considering that such spending increased to $518 billion in fiscal 2008 and continues to rise.

  • In 2000, there were 21,225 contract officers handling $208.3 billion in spending;
  • In 2004, there were 23,514 contract officers handling $343.2 billion in spending; and
  • In 2007, there were 26,846 contract officers handling $457 billion in spending.

Source: Federal Acquisition Institute and USAspending.gov

The good news is that the job market is swamped with college graduates looking for work — and some seasoned professionals who are re-entering the job market for financial reasons.

The federal government, which some workers might have avoided in years past, should be an attractive employer because it offers something many companies cannot: stability.

But then there is the bad news: The federal government is still a bureaucracy. New employees are likely to be frustrated by their lack of decision-making authority and little opportunity to try innovative ideas.

“The federal government is sitting in a pretty good place right now,” said Steve Kempf, assistant commissioner of acquisition management at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. “But I’m not sure we’re going to stay there.”

Several years ago, Congress gave agencies some help by granting them direct-hire authority for acquisition-related positions. That means managers can hire new employees themselves rather than going through the cumbersome process at the Office of Personnel Management.

Congress has also allocated money for agencies to set up booths at job fairs, making it possible to reach potential hires who might not have considered government work.

Once the new employees have been hired, officials often take them on field trips. A visit to a Coast Guard cutter or air traffic control tower shows the new recruits how their work helps the government and country. Many experts say people take more pride in their jobs when they know what their participation brings the government.

However, the thrill of such visits fades fast, leaving new employees wondering what the future holds for them. “You have to have a path to success, and right now the government doesn’t provide that,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. There are a number of barriers to success, he added.

The acquisition field has some unique obstacles, experts say. At most agencies, contracting officers are considered less important than they once were, giving the job less prestige and visibility despite its importance to agencies’ success, said Kempf, a career acquisition employee.

“I think we’ve lowered them in the food chain,” he said. When Kempf entered the field two decades ago, contracting officers were revered and had their own offices. Today, they’ve been downgraded to cubicles, he said.

That demotion leaves the contracting officer as simply another step in the purchasing process. But procurement skills should be a core competency because they involve negotiating prices, researching the marketplace, reviewing proposals and awarding contracts on a basis that will withstand protests, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council.

However, once they’ve chosen the acquisition field, employees have no incentive to pursue a career in government procurement, experts say.

“Frankly, they have every reason to fear for their careers,” said Steven Schooner, an associate law professor and co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.

Congress, watchdog groups and the news media criticize the acquisition community and pounce on mistakes regardless of whether they are fraud or honest errors.

“Competing with the environment we have now, we will find every way to push them out the door,” Kempf said. Bosses will criticize acquisition employees for every mistake they make, even when they’re still learning, he said. The employees who were wowed at the job fair by the stories of being the United States’ buyer will find they don’t have the job that had piqued their interest. Agency managers won’t trust them to judge situations and will instead give them less challenging work, he added.

Younger workers recognize that situation and are not attracted to acquisition.

“The jobs just don’t smell good,” Schooner said.

Meanwhile, young employees can easily be attracted by the private sector’s portrayal of opportunities for leadership, excitement and playing a part in something that’s going to change the world. Companies can woo them with more money and benefits, too.

Beyond the younger generation, the government retirement system creates incentives for experienced career employees to leave for the private sector, taking their knowledge with them, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a member of the congressional Smart Contracting Caucus and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

As the government faces that workforce shortage, its spending has increased dramatically in recent years — nearly doubling since 2000 — and the size of the workforce has increased only minimally. As a result, contracting officers’ jobs now require getting as much done as possible in a short time, despite the fear of a news-making mistake, experts say.

“Their incentive is volume,” said John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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