More than money, young acquisition professionals seek a mission.
Wesley Beemer woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 5 with a day of paperwork ahead of him. The contract specialist at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington planned to look for missing signatures, misplaced documents and numerical errors in orders made against a standing construction contract for base maintenance. Most of us might balk at such seemingly mundane tasks, but ginger-haired Beemer rode the Metro to work in good spirits.
The reason for his cheery mood became apparent shortly after he walked through the front gates of the base. There, an old Air Force fighter jet stood on a patch of dewy grass. It was the site of one of Beemer's projects. He recently had approved a delivery order for a contractor to erect poles around the jet to display the flags of the states and U.S. territories. Even as a first-year contract specialist with only five months of experience, he already was in charge of managing contractors, money and projects to improve the base. Such responsibility is largely why he entered the field in the first place. "There were higher pay grades and more opportunities, and you have to constantly stay on top of things," says Beemer, 29.
Federal contracting isn't the most tantalizing of career choices. It involves details, paperwork and lots of rules. Contracting officers, who spend the government's money, are among the most scrutinized of government professionals. Contracting's deadly reputation for being boring yet stressful undoubtedly is part of the reason that procurement people are so hard to recruit. The situation is expected to worsen: The Federal Acquisition Institute reported in August that 54 percent of the current 59,500 acquisition workers will be eligible for retirement by 2015.
Luckily for short-staffed contracting offices, young acquisition professionals see benefits that might not be obvious to outsiders. They see an opportunity to be directly involved in executing agency missions-whether protecting the homeland, keeping a military base running, or promoting public health. They also are eager to learn skills that are transferable to the private sector. They know they'll probably move up quickly because many internship programs have rapid promotion plans and mid-level contracting officers are in short supply.
Kendra Kozak's flagpole moment came while listening to National Public Radio on the way to work one morning. Kozak, a contract specialist in an acquisition training program at the Interior Department National Business Center's GovWorks office in Herndon, Va., heard a story on childhood lead poisoning in Washington. "That's my contract!" the energetic 26-year-old remembers exclaiming. She administers a contract for childhood lead poisoning prevention for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (GovWorks is a fee-for-service organization that manages contracts for other federal agencies.) She says she loves keeping the files for the contract organized and "pristine."
Timothy Cox, a 25-year-old acquisition analyst at the Veterans Affairs Department, wanted to work with veterans. Both of his grandfathers served in World War II and his father is a retired Army National Guard colonel. Cox spent part of his childhood on military bases. "I didn't have the same ambition to go into the military, but I have such respect for those who are. . . . It's good to be part of [helping them] get what they need," he says.
Cox's supervisors know he wants to work directly with veterans whenever possible, and they allowed him to volunteer for the National Veteran Wheelchair Games in Anchorage, Alaska. They also set up field trips for Cox and other participants in VA's Office of Information and Technology internship program to visit medical centers. "You sometimes lose sight of helping veterans when you're just working in the office," he says. Keeping young workers like Cox focused on the mission, which is often the most exciting aspect of their jobs, is a challenge for their supervisors.
Searching for Meaning
Karen Pica, director of the Federal Acquisition Institute, the organization charged with training acquisition personnel, says the youngest generation of government workers, more so than their predecessors, wants to feel connected to public service. Generational experts back up her observation. "This generation places much more value on finding 'meaningful' work than did past generations. . . . partly because so many young adults grew up with workaholic parents, they want to make sure that their jobs provide an emotional reward as well as financial," says Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (Hyperion, 2006).
Lynne Lancaster, co-author of When Generations Collide (HarperCollins, 2002), says because the United States is an affluent country, people can afford to look for high degrees of satisfaction in their work. "That's a uniquely American thing-to want your work to fulfill the full range of who you are," she says.
So how do managers satisfy those high expectations? For starters, they need to delegate more, says Lancaster. "We've got to get OK with . . . letting them handle projects," she says.
Not only does early responsibility give younger workers greater satisfaction, it also leaves the organization better prepared to weather baby boomer retirements.
Bruce Tulgan, an expert in young workers and a management trainer for the Army and the Education and Veterans Affairs departments, says organizations are suffering from chronic "undermanagement." He says he's talked to thousands of employees who say they don't get enough guidance from their supervisors. "It's a myth that people want to be left alone. People want guidance, direction and support. They want someone to help them succeed," he says. His upcoming book, It's Okay to Be Boss (HarperCollins, 2007), teaches more active supervision.
Pica also has noticed that younger workers are drawn to formal training, mentoring and structured programs that clearly lead them up the ladder. At the same time, many senior staffers find it motivating to share their knowledge and mentor younger colleagues. She encourages older employees to pair up with younger ones, which she says energizes both generations.
Kelly Lael, 32, a contract specialist at the General Services Administration, found a mentor in her contracting officer, who plans to retire in about a year. "He'll explain everything I ask him, and I help him out with software," she says.
Sandra Rivera, 34, a contract specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency, made a similar deal with her contracting officer. "Because my skills came more from business technology, and she'd been in contracting for a long time, I said, 'I'll teach you how to be more resourceful with technology if you teach me about contracting.' " The two women continue to mentor each other.
Older and younger employees don't always have warm relationships. A 39-year-old who managed contracts for a program office and asked not to be named says older workers tend to resist new technology and training, as well as new people. Another contract specialist, who also requested anonymity, says he senses that his elders resent the many incentives-such as quick promotion and time for training-put in place to attract younger workers. "They think of us as spoiled," he says. Kozak says participants in her training program sometimes are treated like interns and given minimal responsibility, even though they are capable of overseeing contracts.
Lancaster writes in When Generations Collide that older workers tend to complain that younger generations expect to move up quickly without having to first pay their dues. At the same time, younger workers complain that older workers treat them as lazy slackers. The authors urge managers to learn about how employees of different generations tend to feel and accept that there will be occasional friction, but to recognize that workers of all ages can teach each other.
An article by two young Government Accountability Office analysts in the summer 2006 issue of The Public Manager, a civil service journal, points out that federal employees in their 20s and 30s often are frustrated by promotion cycles that don't keep up with those of their friends working in the private sector.
"Contractors make more money," says Ryan Dickover, 30, a contract specialist for the Navy in Washington. He still has college loans to pay and when he started in his acquisition intern program in June 2001, he was making about $30,000 a year. "If a Beltway bandit will throw cash at me, I really have no choice," he says.
Some young acquisition workers, including Kozak and Beemer, are in intern programs that promote participants every year. They typically start as GS-7s at salaries ranging from $31,200 to $40,500. The following year, they are promoted to GS-9, where salaries run from $38,200 to $49,600. The third year, they rise to GS-11 with a range of $46,200 to $60,000. In some cases, after four years they are promoted to GS-13 with a range of $65,800 to $85,600. That often means 20 percent increases each year.
According to www.salary.com, which collects nationwide pay information, an entry-level buyer (equivalent to a federal contract specialist) at a private sector company earns $40,800 on average. Two to five years' experience brings about $51,000, and five to eight years averages $63,000. Those salaries are comparable to the General Schedule, but the private sector does not typically guarantee advancement each year. Depending on educational background and experience, the government might actually pay more early in one's career.
After federal acquisition workers complete their intern programs, however, they no longer can expect such rapid promotion, and their salaries tend to rise much more slowly. That's when the private sector starts to look more appealing.
But companies can't always offer the perks of a federal position. Job security is all but guaranteed, and federal employees typically enjoy better benefits and more flexibility than their private sector counterparts. "You can make more money somewhere else, but what is the quality of life once you go there? I don't see myself leaving anytime soon," says Patrick Breen, 28, contracting officer at the Internal Revenue Service. He adds that his job also comes with more responsibility than similar ones his friends hold in the private sector.
That's just the kind of benefit Tulgan calls a "unique value proposition," one other employers can't match. If managers do what they can to give workers what they want, whether it's working from home or bringing their dogs to work, then they're more likely to keep them, he adds.
Tulgan says 20-somethings have come to expect such customization. They grew up in an era where their religion, living situations and even bodies could be designed just the way they want them. The popularity of tattoos and piercings serves as a metaphor for young people's expectations that they can design the kind of life they want. A manager will really turn off a young worker if he tells him just to be quiet and play by the established rules, Tulgan says.
Most people interviewed for this article joined the acquisition workforce by accident. For example, before Rivera was hired as a contract specialist for the Enivronmental Protection Agency, she attended a career fair in September 2005 and stopped by EPA's booth. She had a business background in commercial consulting and dropped off her résumé. Two weeks later, she got a call from the acquisition office in the agency's emergency response service center. Until then, she had never even heard of acquisition.
Jillian Matz, 27, a contract specialist at the Labor Department, applied for dozens of federal job openings after she graduated from college in May 2001 because she had heard the government would help finance post-graduate coursework, and she eventually wanted to attend law school. Matz ended up in acquisition because Labor's acquisition office responded to her online application.
Steve Orloff, 24, purchasing and supply management specialist at the U.S. Postal Service, took the advice of his older brother, a consultant. "He said, 'There are a lot of people retiring; why don't you give it a shot?' " he recalls.
Orloff says his college coursework in government law and business helped land him the job-not that he had been thinking about a procurement career when he decided to take those classes.
Myria Carpenter, 31, a contracting specialist and presidential management fellow at the Broadcasting Board of Governors for the International Broadcasting Bureau in Washington, says she was drawn to the field because she knew there would be high demand for acquisition workers. "People are retiring, and they're going to have to hire more people," she says. Carpenter loves the legal aspects of contracting and the flexibility that comes with working for the government.
In an effort to lure young, ambitious workers, agencies are expanding their intern programs. The Transportation Security Administration recently launched "boot camp" for about 20 aspiring contracting officers. Participants practice their trade before taking on real responsibilities. Trainees are given simulated procurement requests, for which they conduct market research, determine appropriate prices and even negotiate with real vendors.
The Interior Department runs a three-year internship program (Kozak and Lael are participants) that allows about a dozen contract specialists to rotate through different agencies for six months at a time. Beemer is part of Air Force training for contract specialists called the Copper Cap Program.
Tulgan says intensive training is just what new workers need. Like boot camp for the Marines, intensive upfront training helps new workers feel connected to their agency's mission, bond with co-workers and prepare to take on real responsibility. He says that, like the Marines, federal agencies should continue to provide hands-on coaching until the day employees retire.
While small, competitive programs train dozens of new contract specialists annually, fear of worker shortages remains. Earlier this year, a panel created by the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act recommended that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget create a governmentwide acquisition internship program and that OFPP take steps to make it easier for agencies to hire quickly. OFPP is collecting information about existing internships.
Lancaster says this is an especially good time to recruit 20- and 30-somethings who experienced the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and since have suffered through downsizing and mergers. "They're looking for a place to call home. . . . It's really good timing for government agencies to go back to Generation Xers and say, 'Are you feeling disappointed about some of the organizations you worked for? Why don't you come work for someone with values, ethics and standards?' "
Meanwhile, Kozak, who found a professional home at GovWorks, is fielding questions from contractors, keeping careful notes about how contracts are progressing and writing up solicitations to post on the FedBizOpps Web site of agency requests for proposals. She devised her own template to track inter-actions with clients and contractors, which lists award information, points of contact and phone correspondence logs. "You run into more problems the worse your record-keeping is," she says. That diligence, combined with a gray suit, hip librarian glasses and a nose stud make her the epitome of the next generation of acquisition workers.
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