Since 2017 alone, the federal procurement budget increased $137 billion, while the number of acquisition workers increased by about 3,200 workers.
“The fact remains that no one has enough contacting officers. There is not a great supply of new people coming in and attrition rates are higher than the overall workforce. It’s a problem,” said Tim Cooke, president and CEO of ASI Government, which provides acquisition support services to agencies. “The supply problem is not easily solved. You have to make it more of a business discipline and relevant to people in college.”
The relevancy question is a common discussion point among current and former federal executives.
Kraig Conrad, the CEO of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), said telling a better story about government service, how every contracting officer impacts every agency’s mission from the Defense Department to the Interior Department to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The younger generations look differently at work today than that of every previous generation. Good or bad, it’s theirs to inherit and we need them. The deep point underneath all that, though, is they really seem to want to make an impact sooner in their careers,” Conrad said. “I think that’s a story even with all the compliance requirements, all the management responsibilities and the layers and the structures in the job codes and all that sort of stuff, the bottom line is that the direct frontline impact that you can have across the government and specifically within the acquisition contract management space is huge.”
If the General Services Administration is any bell weather for the rest of government, telling those stories to attract new recruits will be imperative.
Contracting officers’ age gap increasing
Jeff Koses, GSA’s senior procurement executive, said at the recent IT Vendor Management Office Summit, 7% of the workforce are under 30 years old across the civilian agency contracting officers.
“We have more than four times as many over 60, than those under 30,” Koses said. “When I first pulled the data for the Federal Acquisition Service, we certainly had more over 70 than under 25. That is not the recipe for long term success. I think we also recognize we have been in a long term talent for acquisition professionals. In many ways, we created the conditions and we did that to ourselves.”
Koses said this is why the change the Office of Federal Procurement Policy made in January to bring all contracting officers under one training standard is part of the solution to this problem.
The update to the Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting (FAC-C) requirements does two things: DoD and civilian agencies now are under the same training umbrella; and it brings a larger degree of expertise and esteem to the position through a standardized, independently administered assessment of contracting professionals’ competencies, which validates their initial readiness.
“Our old program, the one before the new memo, included a couple of really well intentioned things that were not working. It was a government unique curriculum, made up of dozens of small classes that gave us the responsibility and the problem for how do we keep dozens of classes current? If I have a government unique curriculum, I don’t have a shared vocabulary with industry. We’re not teaching, understanding and playing from the same playbook,” he said. “Because we require that you be certified to get a higher level position, I have now limited my recruiting pool to people who are in government. I suspect that there are a tremendous number of folks in industry who are well prepared, well trained and can do a fantastic job in leading acquisition in government space, but we had created our own artificial shortage by establishing qualifications that they could not meet because the courses were not available to them. Moving to a commercial curriculum, we now set the stage we can have a common means of bringing people in, we can have that common vocabulary.”
Koses said GSA’s implementation of the FAC-C modernization included a change to the requirement to be certified to make the “qualified list” as a condition of employment.
He said GSA is giving new employees a year or two to complete their training after they are hired.
“Historically, because we had not limited our recruitment and our eligibility pool enough, we added another limitation that we said that not only do you have to be certified, not only you have to have a four-year degree, you have to have 24 semester hours in business or in law. No wonder we have dealt with such a severe hiring shortage for so many years,” he said. “We used the launch of a new certification program to eliminate that requirement. We now just require the four year degree.”
Innovations at DoD, other agencies
The Defense Department is taking another tact. Starting this month, DoD’s first cohort of about 80 students will take part in the Defense Civilian Training Corps. The training effort is aiming to prepare competitively selected students for public service in acquisition-related occupations and improve talent readiness in DoD critical skill areas.
Congress funded the DCTC, a scholarship-for-service program run by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. Students will participate in an experiential and multi-disciplinary learning curriculum, paid internships and DoD challenge projects. Additionally, students will have access to accelerated security clearance processing and direct hire employment after graduation.
ASI’s Cooke pointed to other agencies, including the departments of Interior, Homeland Security and Commerce, using similar approaches to attract new acquisition workers through internships that could lead to permanent jobs.
NCMA’s Conrad lauded the FAC-C modernization effort from OFPP. He said NCMA conducted an informal survey of about 100 members about the FAC-C update, and that showed some lingering concerns.
He said supervisors need training for how to manage a less specific training requirement as the FAC-C moves to a model that focuses on “just-in-time” training chosen by the student.
Additionally, Conrad said nothing is more important than experience itself of working on an acquisition and growing from that success or failure.
“The shift in how people want to work and how people want to have impact means that people are looking for something different. They don’t necessarily want to be only in a course. They want on the job training. They want mentoring. They want some form of experiential learning, whether it’s through some simulation or otherwise,” he said. “That means, there is no map for those supervisors to say, ‘Ok, here’s your level one single level certification. Go out, go forth.’ The question is what and how? The other part of that training is if we don’t have recognition that training is needed, there’s a strong concern that we will adjust our budgets to be exactly the minimum requirement.”
Cooke added supervisors need to take a more active role in advising the next generation on how they should prepare themselves for their own future. In addition to courses, it means knowledge transfer, coaching, mentoring and anything to close the experience gap.
IT to help acquisition professionals
Cooke said while recruitment of early or mid-career acquisition workers is important, the technology revolution coming to federal procurement is just as important.
He said the work the IRS, for example, has been doing to use robotics process automation and other smart automation tools to reduce the mundane or repetitive acquisition work is important.
“For the IRS, we’ve helped automate the contract modification process and eliminated thousands of hours of work that no longer has to get done by a person,” Cooke said. “Right now all of these are point solutions like contract modifications or contract closeouts, but the next thing to happen is lashing all of these procurement, finance, human resources and other systems together using same technology so it can all be automated across the stovepipes. It’s a brave new world, and while this will take decades, it’s clear there is a lot value.”
The rebound from the “peace dividend” may be complete in terms of raw numbers, but the acquisition workforce, and for that matter nearly every other back-office job in the government, is in need of rethinking and reimaging the hiring, training, retraining, maintaining and use of technology to supplement the workforce. By no means is this a new problem, but the initial success and the longer-term promise of the new FAC-C shows the benefits of creative thinking.