TSA begins virtual training for contracting officers

Acquisition “boot camp” will last eight months; new concept could be expanded to other agencies.

The Transportation Security Administration launched a new acquisition training program Monday that enables aspiring contracting officers to practice their trade virtually before taking on real responsibilities.

The program, which TSA has dubbed acquisition "boot camp," is the first to provide newcomers with months of practice before they put their skills to use in the real world. Trainees will treat simulated procurement requests as if they are real and perform market research, determine appropriate prices and even negotiate with vendors playing themselves. About 20 entry-level employees are enrolled.

The training is designed to address a long-standing problem in contracting offices: a dearth of qualified professionals. Procurement executives throughout government say they have difficulty filling openings. The problem has been most pronounced at the Homeland Security Department, TSA's parent organization. DHS currently has 135 openings out of 900 authorized positions.

Placing entry-level employees in offices strains the more experienced contracting officers, who have to take time to mentor their younger colleagues and explain how things work, said Bridget Gauer, chief of staff for TSA's acquisitions office. Grouping the entry-level folks together and giving them mentors whose only job is to teach them should reduce the pressure on an already overworked staff, she said. When the trainees eventually get placed in contracting offices, they won't have to ask basic questions such as, "What is a PR [purchase request]?" she added.

The new training program, which will last about eight months, will include lessons on contracting law, customer relations, the appropriations process and negotiation. For the first eight weeks, trainees will learn the basics of the acquisition process in a classroom. Then they will respond to simulated procurement requests similar to the type of products and services that a TSA program office typically would buy, such as screening technology.

Experienced contracting officers will walk the trainees through each step of how to handle such a request. Gauer plans to ask existing TSA customers to play themselves in pretend negotiations, in order to give the trainees a chance to practice.

"We want it to be as real as possible," Gauer said. The teachers also will insert real work amid the simulations, but won't tell the trainees which is which, she said.

The trainees will be graded on their work, which will include group projects. Team-building skills will be emphasized.

Once students complete the eight months, they will finish another 28 months of training in contracting offices, bringing their total training time to three years, as was required before the introduction of the boot camp. "Nothing can take the place of true experience," Gauer said. Participants in TSA's three-year program are eligible to get promoted each year. They start on the equivalent of a GS-7 and usually reach the equivalent of a GS-13 after four years. (TSA does not use the General Schedule pay system.)

Gauer said the virtual component will not add to the cost of the three years of training. Previously trainees were placed directly into contracting offices as entry-level employees and sent to courses.

Karen Pica, director of the Federal Acquisition Institute, said she hopes to see the virtual training concept expanded to other agencies.

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