Focus on The Buyers

Mark J. Terrill/AP file photo

In a freshly christened office tower in a changing neighborhood in Northeast Washington, the Homeland Security Department has set up classrooms with its logo on each door. 

Doing its part in the Obama administration’s push to build a savvier acquisition workforce, the government’s third largest department has revamped its Homeland Security Acquisition Institute, an ambitious provider of mid-career training that grants about 2,700 acquisition certifications a year. 

The center offers 250 classes annually that span nine career paths, including financial management, systems engineering, cost estimating and ordering. 

Some 9,500 DHS employees make up the acquisition workforce, either certified or working to become certified. “Out of 240,000 in the department, that may not seem like a significant number,” says Ashley J. Lewis, who until recently was executive director for DHS acquisition policy and the acquisition institute, before becoming head of the Coast Guard’s contracting activity. “But we want to take care of them and provide meaningful training, here and on the job, that results in a tangible benefit to DHS.” 

The payoff has been quantified. DHS contract specialists (a General Schedule 1102 position) negotiated $2,219 in savings per dollar invested in training in fiscal 2012, the department says. And the acquisition workforce attrition rate—about 10 percent—is comparable to the rest of the government.

“We find the investment worth it,” says Ellen Murray, director of the acquisition institute. Her recently released first-ever strategic human capital plan lays out five mutually supportive goals: Develop tools for better workforce planning,  create career paths, leverage resources across DHS’ learning and training assets,improve hiring and retention, and enhance communication across the department. 

Staff and students have a 12th floor view in the new building—dedicated in October 2012 by DHS Chief Procurement Officer Nick Nayak—where space is shared with the chief procurement officer, the chief human capital officer, an intelligence training facility, and parts of Customs and Border Protection. “We don’t let space sit idle in this day and age,” Lewis says, noting the facility’s 30-person classrooms, auditorium and breakfast area can be used by other agencies. Furniture in the classrooms is configured to encourage teamwork and act out contract negotiating scenarios.

“People tend to think of the institute merely as a training conduit, but it encompasses far more,” Lewis says. “We want to sustain programs critical to the future of the acquisition workforce, a new form of succession planning.” In fulfilling DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s goals, Lewis adds, “we bring in students from across components to learn from each other, to learn the best and, yes, the worst practices— to learn from mistakes.”

Acquisition employees need 80 hours of training every two years to keep certifications current. “Congress imposes new requirements, so employees must be savvy and read the newspaper and stay in tune with industry,” Lewis says. “It’s not a stagnant operation.” 

Most students are GS-7s who have signed up for a three-year acquisition professional career program of courses and on-the-job training with specialists from DHS before they enter individualized development plans. In due course they report to DHS offices as GS-12s with GS-13 capabilities. “It all ties together, interlinked between certified training and careers,” Lewis says. 

Executives at DHS’ institute have little contact with the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Lewis says, but the program “comports with Administrator Joe Jordan’s vision of rebuilding the acquisition workforce.”

Murray notes that DHS “leverages learning management systems” already offered by the Defense Acquisition University and the Treasury Acquisition Institute, with courses tracked on a common system. Because of the expense, “we try not to develop our own courses,” says Lewis. But it happens. A recent DHS course on human trafficking was made mandatory for contracting employees; the Federal Acquisition Institute then picked it up for all agencies.

“We have such a great talent pool, the components fight over our candidates,” Lewis says.

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