Pulling Out All the Stops

Tactics to attract young workers to the acquisition field run the gamut.

Agencies are battling vacancies in crucial contracting-related positions as more employees become eligible to retire. The Office of Management and Budget, however, recently reported a slight increase in acquisition personnel in fiscal 2007. For procurement chiefs, this could be a sign that their aggressive recruitment and retention tactics are paying off.

The acquisition workforce report, released annually by OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Federal Acquisition Institute, showed a 4.4 percent increase in employees performing contracting-related functions from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007-from 58,818 to 61,434. The report includes demographics on five contracting-related job classifications: general business and industry (GS-1101), contracting (GS-1102), purchasing (GS-1105), procurement clerical and assistance (GS-1106), and industrial specialist (GS-1150).

The report, released in May, also included preliminary information on program and project managers and contracting officer technical representatives, which will be analyzed in subsequent reports. OFPP Administrator Paul A. Denett says the new focus on these management and support positions is crucial to strong acquisition programs. "If we have the right numbers and talent for the contracting officers, we have to have their colleagues-the program managers, the COTRs that are the eyes and ears of the contracting officer after the contract is awarded-we need to make sure we have strength in those," he says.

The fact that agencies have kept numbers up despite retirement and turnover is impressive, Denett says, and he credits them for developing unique initiatives to recruit and train people. "There's a bit of a misnomer with people saying, 'My God, we've had these huge cuts in the contracting officers . . . at the same time we've had significant increases in spending,' " Denett says. "We've definitely had the significant increases in spending, but we've also had increases in the workforce."

Procurement executives are using every tool at their disposal and coming up with a range of intern and recruitment programs to ensure that they have the procurement and management personnel they need. The Homeland Security Department has been focusing on recent college graduates and its acquisition professional program. Enrollees in the program start out at the GS-5 or GS-7 level and are appointed to three one-year rotational assignments at DHS agencies. Those who complete the program are placed in a permanent full-time position with the potential for promotion to GS-13.

The Coast Guard, which has faced significant scrutiny following high-profile setbacks on Deep-water, its massive ship and aircraft modernization program, is taking advantage of various programs to bring in young procurement professionals. Rear Adm. Gary Blore, assistant commandant and chief acquisition officer for the Coast Guard, says the agency has upwards of 25 interns in its career entry opportunity program for contracting officers.

Attracting people through a temporary program is the first step, but getting them to stay is the tricky part, Blore says. Competition for acquisition employees is fierce, with talented young professionals essentially having their pick of agencies. "The solution to this is you want to be an employer of choice," Blore says. The Coast Guard sees the importance and diversity of its mission as a selling point and is pushing it hard to attract recruits. "Whether you consider yourself a humanitarian or a law enforcement person by your disposition, there's a spot for you in the Coast Guard, because we operate on both sides of that kind of equation," he says. "So we have a good mission and story to tell."

The Housing and Urban Development Department has been successful in attracting, and most important, retaining young contracting employees. HUD Chief Procurement Officer Joseph A. Neurauter says the opportunity for advancement is one of the most effective ways to retain acquisition professionals starting their careers. "Many of our selections in terms of leadership positions have been from within, and that sends an important message to our folks in terms of their opportunities here at HUD," Neurauter says. If young employees are not convinced they'll have a chance to advance, they are easily tempted by other agencies or the private sector, he says.

As a precursor to career advancement, young contracting professionals expect to receive the training and guidance that will set them on a path for success. Besides making contracting-related training programs and certifications available, acquisition executives are working to ensure that new employees are paired with experienced ones. At an agency such as DHS, which still is struggling to build up its workforce after a rapid stand-up in 2002, a mentoring program hinges on the ability to bring in mentors along with their protégés. "As we're still short-staffed, the ability of people to provide the necessary training and mentoring to recent college grads and people who don't know the job is limited," says DHS Chief Procurement Officer Thomas W. Essig.

Essig and his office are killing two birds with one stone using the department's annuitant re-employment authority. Not only is DHS bringing in retired contracting officers from other agencies on a full- or part-time basis to fill vacancies, it also is asking those seasoned contracting veterans to mentor and train interns.

While agencies and OMB tout progress, some warn that it is far from enough. Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service who specializes in federal management issues, notes that the size of the acquisition workforce is much smaller than it was in the early 1990s, despite the slight increase in fiscal 2007. As the number of procurement professionals remains relatively low, spending has exploded. "The amount of contracting has increased dramatically, including massive increases in the number of large, bundled contracts, which are very difficult to oversee," Light says. "The good news is the workforce is growing, the bad news is the workforce is not growing fast enough to keep pace with massive increases in contract dollars."

With 51 percent of contracting and related personnel eligible for retirement during the next 10 years and 47 percent planning to retire within that time frame, acquisition leaders are making recruitment and retention a priority. And they might just be finding solutions to keep chairs filled and needs met.

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