What acquisition employees want

Caring and feeding for midcareer acquisition staffers keep them from leaving for other agencies.

Steve Kempf teleworked well before that initiative had grabbed the spotlight. In 1996, he moved from Washington to work for the General Services Administration as a project manager from his home in Monterey, Calif.Kempf, who eventually held more than a dozen jobs before being named GSA’s assistant commissioner for acquisition management earlier this year, said telework provided him an opportunity to try something new. “I think that has helped to keep me energized,” he said.Experienced midcareer acquisition employees have become very important to their organizations and valuable to agencies with worked piled on empty desks. As a result, agencies in need are wooing knowledgeable acquisition employees from other agencies. But for agencies intent on keeping those personnel, officials have suggestions that may stop precious employees from answering the calls.Karen Pica, director of the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), said managers must help their employees understand their role in the agency, train them and offer new opportunities.In 2000, Kempf took a promotion and moved back to Washington to work for GSA’s Federal Systems Integration and Management Center, a national assisted acquisition service. Kempf said that even while he developed his acquisition expertise at FEDSIM, he still had plenty of chances for new opportunities, and those opportunities gave him a new perspective on GSA.“People need care and feeding,” Pica said.That agencywide perspective can be vital in retaining an agency’s acquisition employees, Pica said. “Get them to understand [that] what they’re doing at their desk relates to people” in the field and to the agency’s mission, she said.Experts say that giving a view of the results of work is invaluable. For example, they recommend letting contracting officers cruise on the Coast Guard cutter they purchased for the service or taking them to the edge of forest fires that they are helping to extinguish.“You see people scratching their heads saying, ‘Wow, it really does make a difference,’ “ Pica said. Quite often, government employees work for their agency because they believe in its mission, said Shay Assad, director of procurement, acquisition policy and strategic sourcing at the Defense Department.People can lose sight of the mission because of the day-to-day routine of quickly getting documents off their desks as more work arrives.“They sometimes lose sight of what that document means,” Pica said.In order to stay focused on the mission, managers should get employees from behind their desks. As an example, Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, cited an Interior Department contracting officer who learned that the axes he bought for the agency’s firefighters kept breaking. Denett, who then was Interior’s director of administration and senior procurement executive, flew the contracting officer to Puerto Rico to talk with firefighters about the broken axes. Denett said the meeting gave the contracting officer a lot of evidence to present to the manufacturer of the axes, and the officer used the evidence in aggressively renegotiating the contract in the government’s favor.Without the trip, the officer may not have seen and handled the axes before presenting the problem to the company. Denett said supervisors might say there’s no money to send officers on such trips, especially when the budget is so tight, but the trips can pay for themselves by helping the officers “do a better job of contracting,” he said.“A little extra investment is worth its weight in gold,” Denett said. Assad said acquisition employees stay in the federal government in large part because they know they will get the superior training and skills. And they will get more experience at a much younger age than in other sectors, he said.A competency survey conducted by OFPP in 2007 found the same thing: contracting officers want more training. More than 50 percent of contracting officers participated in the survey. The officers said they have skills gaps in general contracting areas, such as negotiations with vendors and handling contract disputes.They also have skills gaps in more technical areas. They need training in how to better define requirements and manage those requirements after a contract is awarded. Core techniques that drive a contract to success, such as writing clear work statements and defining requirements, are becoming a lost art, some contracting officers say. Retirement rates have remained stable at between 16 and 19 percent since 2000, according to the FAI’s Fiscal 2007 Annual Report on the Federal Acquisition Workforce. More importantly, the research shows that roughly 40 percent of the government’s contract specialists who are highly proficient in those technical contracting areas will leave the workforce during the next decade. As a whole, 55 percent of the contract specialists will be eligible to retire by 2017, while only 14 percent were eligible in 2007. Midcareer contracting officers and specialists are important players in light of those statistics. They have approximately eight to 12 years of experience with contracting and acquisition, and have been mentored by senior officers both formally and informally, Pica said. They’ve had years of training, developed an expertise, and know their jobs and their agency well, she said.Other agencies know about the retirement statistics and recognize the midcareer employees’ value, as their hiring habits indicate. In 2007, the greatest number of civilian agencies’ new hires were recruited from other agencies. FAI found 40 percent of the hires came from other agencies, and 22 percent of the Defense Department’s hires came from other agencies. It’s important to remember, Pica said, that when employees leave, they take their expertise and training with them.Inside the office, managers can do things to care for and feed their employees.Denett said managers can be aware of what’s happening in people’s lives, such as 25th wedding anniversaries or a sick grandmother. Take a few seconds to chat with people or simply say thank you once in a while, he said.“You’ve got to remember they’re human beings,” he said.People also like to know they are doing a good job, he said. When Denett became administrator, he introduced a governmentwide program, called the Shine Initiative, to provide employees with monetary awards and public recognition.Recognition comes in many forms, Kempf said. But sometimes, the recognition outside of the agency is more important than the internal recognition. He said it’s even important just to nominate people for these awards. It reflects managers’ confidence in their employees’ work.“Everyone likes the idea of coming to work and actually saying I did something good today,” Pica said. 
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