Opening up federal contracting jobs for more Americans

The Office of Personnel Management, under both the current and previous administrations, successfully opened up thousands of federal jobs to more Americans by eliminating unnecessary degree requirements for federal positions for which a formal education is neither required nor a reliable predictor of a candidate’s ability to successfully do the job. Combined with the increased use of telework and designation of more positions as eligible for remote work, this change now provides opportunities for millions of Americans living in rural communities (75% of which do not have degrees) and other underserved communities including minorities (70-80% of which do not have degrees).

However, both administrations ignored the majority of the federal workforce that is composed of contractor labor. With roughly 3.7 million federal contractors augmenting 2 million federal civilian employees, that means more than 65% of government jobs continue to exclude more than 120 million working age Americans who are still effectively barred from high-paying federal contractor jobs because they do not have a bachelor degree.

The opportunity cost of this failure is most acute in information technology, which generally has an even greater percentage of contract labor. Much (if not most) of the IT work performed by government contractors does not require college degrees. However, federal contractors are currently unable to hire or retain high potential graduates of these programs because practically all federal IT services contracts have no labor categories for non-college graduates. Additionally, the few federal contracts that do provide labor categories without a college degree requirement do so only for lower-paying, entry-level categories while still maintaining college degrees for all higher paying mid- and senior-career-level labor categories, which makes it impractical for companies to hire people they can not retain.

Millions of highly talented people, including people with and without college degrees, have taken advantage of numerous programs that enable high school students and underemployed people of all ages and backgrounds to develop the skills required to be successful software engineers, programmers, UI/UX engineers, cybersecurity specialists, network administrators, low code/no code platform developers, cloud specialists, IT project managers and a plethora of other IT related positions. The obvious proof of this is in the fact that Google, Apple, Netflix and other leading tech companies do not require college degrees for most of their IT jobs including senior software engineering positions and executive leadership roles. As a matter of fact, they proudly and prominently advertise the fact that not only do they not require degrees for these roles, but that they already have numerous senior engineers and executives without degrees. For these world class software companies, eliminating arbitrary and unnecessary degree requirements is a way to attract more and better quality talent.

Federal contractors operate in the same labor market as Netflix, Apple and Google. Like those leading IT companies, they would recruit, hire, train and retain more highly qualified people from underserved communities if federal contracts had labor categories at all levels, from paid interns through project managers, for qualified IT professionals that do not have college degrees.

In addition to disenfranchising tens of millions of Americans, the result of including unnecessary education requirements in contract labor categories leads to not only higher labor costs, but critical vacancies causing project delays that impact agencies’ abilities to accomplish their mission. It’s time for the General Services Administration, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and other governmentwide acquisition contract (GWAC) managing agencies to issue no-cost, unilateral modifications to all existing Schedule 70, SEWP, CIO-SP4 and other GWAC contracts, eliminating costly and counterproductive education requirements from IT labor categories. It’s the right thing to do for not only the 120 million Americans who do not have college degrees, but for every American that wants their government to deliver the best possible service in the most cost effective way possible.

Joe Paiva, creator and host of Federal News Network’s A Deeper Look with Joe Paiva, is a retired software industry executive and Army reserve officer who served as a senior executive and federal agency CIO during both the Bush and Obama administrations. 

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