By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Are we wasting the talents of our new government contracting hires?

As readers of this blog can likely guess, I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I recently met with a group of newly hired contract specialists at an important federal agency, and it was a somewhat depressing experience. One of the biggest challenges the procurement system faces is bringing a new generation of young contracting professionals into the system, and this agency, at least, is having problems.

The most obvious problem that emerged from the meeting was that the new hires -- those who have started their jobs within the last year -- are being dramatically underused just in terms of their time. Almost all reported that they have gotten few assignments and that their days were filled with downtime. One said that it was strange to move from a high-pressure, high-activity campus environment into a place where she had little work to do. The new hires reported that their supervisors and other senior people seemed to be either too busy to mentor them and bring them into their teams, or didn't seem to regard this as a priority. (If the more senior people are too busy, they should understand the basic idea behind the notion of an "investment," in which one pays a cost now to receive returns down the road.) A number of the new hires were working mostly on de-obligations, some of the most clerical and mind-numbing work a contracting person can do.

But there were other problems as well. In general, the training the new people were getting seemed somewhat minimalist, and none was learning anything about the products or services they were buying. (As a start, I urged them to take out subscriptions to Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News; they all wrote down the Web addresses, and I think these publications are about to get five new subscribers.) When we talked about how one should deal with a customer who wants to buy something sole source, one of the new hires suggested telling the customer about Federal Acquisition Regulation requirements, making me fear that a new generation of bureaucrats might be being born.

One final distressing thing was that one of the new hires, a part of an elite agency-wide contracting internship program, stated she had no idea before she actually started on the job that the position she was being hired for involved government contracting! (She had been an international relations major in college.) This case may be an outlier, but it is an HR truism that successful transition to a new job is easier, the more the person knows about the job before taking it, and this example doesn't speak well of how we are doing on that score.

There is a little good news in this story. The organization of which these new hires is a part realizes they have a problem, and have now assigned an experienced contracting professional to work fulltime helping these young people out. However, the problem at the end of the day can only be solved by the supervisors and senior contracting officers in the units to which these new hires have been assigned.

I have no idea how common or unusual these problems are. I know, at the other end, that the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy, about which I have blogged a number of times in the past, takes a very different approach to bringing new hires on board. I would be curious to hear from other contracting organizations, and particularly from any new hires who might see this blog, about how people are dealing with taking advantage of the talent our new hires represent.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 23, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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