The Acquisition Workforce: Are We Going Backwards?

As the meat grinder of sequestration continues to move forward, the initiatives to improve and develop the acquisition workforce will more than likely come to a grinding halt, and move capabilities backwards at a time where forward movement is badly needed.

At this past week’s 2013 Acquisition Excellence Conference, The American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council and the General Services Administration (GSA) co-hosted what was dubbed a “training and education” event, but according to those that attended, the unspoken theme was “doing more with less” and strategic sourcing.

I regretfully was unable to attend, but it sounds like perhaps the conference was a missed opportunity to really “train and educate.” However, the fact that the conference experienced 30% less attendance from last year, that number is a symbol of what seems to be happening all across the board in the development of the acquisition workforce.
Make no mistake; the acquisition workforce is in crisis mode. With budget cuts and continued uncertainty, the opportunities to educate and develop the workforce will shrink accordingly.
This point was analyzed through the excellent publication from the Professional Service’s Council biennial Acquisition Policy Survey (formerly the Procurement Policy Survey). The section of Budget Stability discussed “doing more with less,” which also includes who will be doing the buying. Which leaves an interesting question: Who will be doing the buying?
According to Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) Joe Jordan, it may be left in the hands on the less experienced:
…The top federal procurement officer on Thursday called for “not a tweak but a full rethink” of the government’s planning for its acquisition workforce, warning that as many as 40 percent of the 36,000 federal contracting officers could retire in the next five years.
Joe Jordan, administrator of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, compared the coming brain drain to water flowing out of a “giant bathtub,” saying he plans to push agencies to “widen the aperture of who they recruit.”…
Adding insult to injury is the fact that due to budgets cuts, contractor support will also be cut, along with retirees coming back as consultants. We have no choice but to hand the keys over those with the equivalent of learner’s permits.
We now are back to the original issue: How do we assure the acquisition workforce has the capabilities to perform these most difficult missions under severe budgetary pressures and through less experienced 1102s?
OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan recently signed a service-level agreement (SLA) between OFPP and GSA to strengthen their cooperation and commitment to the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), who I like to call the “red-headed step child” of the training institutions in government. What Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is to Defense acquisition workers, FAI is to non-Defense 1102s.
Therein lies the rub, where is the money? Is there a monetary commitment with this SLA? DAU has traditional gotten vast sums of money, much more than FAI in the past, which is why I gave FAI that moniker. Should we not be preparing all acquisition workers (which I include program managers) equally to perform effectively?
We can talk all day about people, but until a financial investment is slated and properly used to educate and develop the acquisition workforce, we will continue to experience gaps in skill sets and capabilities.
Not a silver bullet of course, but educating 1102s on effective and proper practices on how best to execute their missions is important nonetheless. Based on fewer opportunities to attend conferences, classes (in some cases mandatory for certification), and overall training and development, we can expect to go backwards in how we award and manage contracts.
Not a particularly welcome prospect.

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Janina Rey Echols Harrison

Well, speaking from my experience, government has rules in place that supposedly help maintain a better workforce. I worked as a purchasing agent and contracts administrator for many, many years in private sector, negotiating multi million dollar contracts. I came into government and someone gave my resume to the CO here. He called my references and wanted to hire me. I didn’t have the education required and at the time, my husband worked for their group. I knew FAR because I worked for a stressed steel company that worked on government construction projects so I could reverse that knowledge.

A lot of talented people who could be useful to government but hiring procedures are not flexible. I know and understand why the rules are in place, but they do make it impossible to recruit, plus I would not have made the money I was making in private sector. However, there is the issue that gov jobs in the area I now live are the better paying jobs. In Los Angeles area where I was in contracting, private sector paid more.

Jaime Gracia

It is a difficult conundrum between attracting talent in the public and private sector, and the capabilities gap that the 1102s workforce are experiencing is no exception. Some of the senior people now in government only have high school educations, and the ability to expand their careers has been limited because times have changed.

There needs to be a larger focus on business skills, and not just 1102 experience. How many people post on this forum the difficulties in getting into government, as they have a great business background, but no experience as a 1102s, and are thus shut out entirely. It does not make any sense.

OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan understands this issue, and will hopefully be able to raise awareness. I wrote an article on this topic 3 years ago that may be of interest, and is as relevant today as ever: