By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Reflections of an Air Force contracting intern

I had lunch today with a Ph.D. student who is studying business administration at a local university. He is interested in doing work on public sector organizations and wanted some research/career advice. It turned out that immediately after college and before entering a Ph.D. program, he had worked for three years at an Air Force base as an intern in the Air Force's "copper cap" training program for contract specialists. He had some interesting reflections on his experience.

The first thing he brought up was the Air Force's establishment of a council of young employees at the base where he worked, of which he was a member. (I didn't know such councils existed -- it is something I have urged agencies to do for/with young employees.) He thought it was a great idea, but was implemented only so-so. The best thing it could have provided would have been a mentoring program, but the mentors provided were online buddies, not face-to-face mentors with whom you could meet in the office or attend meetings. It was interesting to see that he preferred an old-fashioned personal touch to the online world. To be sure, he is 31, and, as noted in my last blog posts, there are big differences among different age groups that the older generation assimilates into the category "younger generation." The bottom line is that he felt that participation in the council was valuable for him personally, but didn't do enough to meet its stated goal of adapting the Air Force to a new generation of employees.

I asked him whether he had gotten challenging assignments. During his three years in the program, he said was located in four offices. Two of his bosses gave him great assignments ("one had me actually negotiating with Boeing") and two didn't ("I was processing contract mods"). Whether an intern got good assignments or not seemed to depend pretty much on the personality of the supervisor, rather than Air Force policy. However, he did note that young lieutenants were almost always given fascinating, challenging assignments -- put in over their heads, and given the opportunity to sink or swim -- and he wished that had been done more for civilians. He also noted that a plus of the copper cap program was that an intern getting really bad assignments had somebody in PK (the contracting policy organization) to whom he or she could complain.

The biggest negative about the job for him, he said, was the 30 percent of employees (his estimate) who, in his view, didn't pull their weight in the office. Seventy percent of employees (including, in his view, all the new employees) were hardworking and dedicated, but 30 percent strived to get by on the minimum necessary. This raised the workload for others, but above all, made him resentful. This is a theme similar to one I have heard in the classroom from my master's degree students, who generally are fans of pay for performance for that reason.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 10, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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