The 2009 Federal List

5 talking points for a debate about employee poaching

Federal managers are taking a closer look at what government contractors have to offer -- their employees that is

Federal managers are looking closer than ever at what government contractors have to offer. But it’s not their products or services the managers are after: It’s their employees.

Intent on beefing up their in-house expertise in information technology and other fields, some agencies are aggressively recruiting top talent from industry vendors, according to a report FCW.com picked up late last month from David Hubler of Washington Technology, a sister publication of Federal Computer Week.

In fact, industry leaders want to see some controls put in place to prevent the practice from getting out of control and hamstringing companies that are competing for business.

Some FCW readers who commented on the story didn’t see a problem, especially because contractors are not always shy about tempting feds to step through that revolving door. However, others in government and industry noted that the issue is far from simple.

Drawing on the dozens of comments we received, here are five particular points of contention that defy easy resolution.

1. The ethics conundrum, part 1

Some contractor employees welcome the prospect of government stirring things up a bit. If an agency tries to lure away talented employees from a vendor, “How about you counteroffer or pay them well to begin with?” one reader wrote. “It’s not rocket science. The talent goes where the money is, folks.”

But the playing field isn't exactly level, several readers pointed out. A contractor who hires feds must abide by ethics clauses that limit how the contractor can use their talents. Agencies have no such constraints.

2. The ethics conundrum, part 2

Perhaps agencies should have similar limitations, one government contract specialist wrote. “How is it fair that we can hire an industry contract administrator who worked with us directly, on a contract that is still active, to be a government contract administrator?”

“I am happy for the worker — higher pay, more expensive benefits, more paid time off,” said one contractor employee who has lost staff to government. “My consolation is I have another friend on the inside who may be friendlier on those source-selection panels.”

3. Murky hiring practices

Industry sources questioned whether agencies might be cutting corners in the hiring process to get industry talent on board. Some feds share those concerns as they watch industry recruits fill high-level jobs. “To ice the cake, when the ‘outsiders’ are hired, it is the existing staff of govies who get to train these people,” one reader wrote.

However, it works both ways. “We've had plenty of IT people quit or retire on a Friday and come back the next Monday working for a contractor with the contractor charging as much as 250 percent of what the employee was being paid by the government,” Erich commented. “That often puts those employees out of range of what the government can pay.”

4. Murky accounting

The pay disparity between the public and private sectors is a perennial topic of debate. Companies generally pay more for comparable work — although the gap is narrowing, sources say — but government offers better benefits and, now more important than ever, more job stability.

But the disparity is difficult to quantify because agencies and contractors have different ways of allocating costs. Pay-related comments coming from either camp are likely to begin, “What you don’t understand….”

5. The bottom dollar

Meanwhile, such nuanced debates are often lost on employees who are wondering where their next paycheck is coming from.

“With the current economic situation and industry [standard operating procedure] of cutting staff at the conclusion of a project, why wouldn’t recruited staff jump?” one reader wrote. “Any job offer in today's market is a good one!”

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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