Size of contracting workforce holds steady

New data shows that half of all acquisition workers will be retirement-eligible within 10 years, but actual departure rates are much lower.

The federal acquisition workforce grew almost imperceptibly during the past year, far short of the contracting growth rate, according to new government data.

Office of Personnel Management data analyzed by the Federal Acquisition Institute showed that the number of procurement professionals in government rose just less than 1 percent in fiscal 2006, to 59,997 from 59,477 in fiscal 2005.

Future retirement eligibility remains a threat, the figures indicated. About one federal acquisition professional in eight already is eligible to retire, and that will rise to more than half the workforce by 2016, according to the data.

Agencies typically see only a fraction of eligible retirees leave the procurement workforce every year, though, with fiscal 2006 loss rates ranging from 8 percent among those designated as contracting personnel to 22 percent among procurement clerical and assistance workers, supporting the argument that projections of a "retirement tsunami" may be overly dire.

In a summary, report authors said, "The information will provide a governmentwide baseline of federal contracting workforce competencies and it will help determine areas where training would be most beneficial to augment the levels and distribution of current contracting capabilities."

Acknowledging recent refrains from the Office of Management and Budget and an independent acquisition advisory panel, the authors said new statistics support observations that acquisition workloads have grown larger and more complex, and agencies need to identify crucial skills, recruit and retain employees, and plan for change as the nature of acquisition work continues to evolve.

The number of federal acquisition personnel has increased about 3 percent since fiscal 1999, a growth rate that falls far behind the more than doubling in federal contracting that has taken place during that period. Federal contract dollars totaled $188 billion in 1999 and rose to about $394 billion in fiscal 2006 -- a 110 percent increase -- according to recent OMB figures.

The latest workforce data builds on a long series of similar annual reports, but the acquisition advisory panel last year found that data insufficient to resolve questions about whether more hiring was necessary to bolster the federal procurement workforce, or if increased training and other measures would suffice.

The Federal Acquisition Institute recently completed a more comprehensive study of the civilian acquisition workforce for OMB, and the Defense Department has developed a modeling tool to help analyze its procurement workforce needs. Information collected through those studies could help in answering some of the panel's questions.

Paul Light, a professor at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University who specializes in federal workforce issues, said he doesn't believe there are enough acquisition workers to handle the workload. The result, he said, is more sole-source and large, aggregated contracts.

The relationship between contract volume and contracting personnel also raises questions, Light said. "By my experience, there is no relationship between size of an agency's budget and the size of its acquisition workforce, and that requires some sort of explanation," he said.