Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (Jenifer Morris)
Several recent articles have discussed declines in the federal workforce. Discussion of acquisition invariably gets around to workforce concerns; the workforce of today and the future. Hiring challenges make it difficult to get the right people when needed. As discretionary budgets have shrunk, funding for staff, training, travel, and other bread and butter items have dropped. Sequesters and furloughs are not great recruiting tools, so as experienced managers continue to leave, many present and next-generation contract managers take a pass and go on to perhaps greener (or at least more immediately available) pastures. Discussion continues on the need for a workforce that’s more responsive, more knowledgeable, trained, and with better developmental experience and improved interpersonal skills. Suggestions of streamlining the FAR intend to further simplify the process, so that this workforce can better perform their duties.
Participation in workforce discussions often include many who have never actually worked in acquisition. While many experienced managers recall the difficulties of the past, growing within the profession, receiving the education and experience necessary for ever-greater responsibilities, some tend to take a rose-colored recollection of the superiority of the past, tainting our view of today’s challenges.
The difficulties of keeping and recruiting an acquisition workforce are unfortunate and preventable, but should also be given perspective. Particularly in contracting or program management—always highly marketable skills for superior performers—turnover has traditionally been high. Government “outsourcing” programs consistently had the unintended byproduct of high attrition of experienced contracting managers leaving government for the greener pastures of government contractors. Those that stayed did so either because they saw increased career opportunity or considered the long-term employee benefit of government retirement. That traditional advantage is shrinking in today’s more competitive climate.
For anyone working with many of the new professionals progressing within contracting in particular, we need not be as fearful as many appear to be. First of all, the preparatory training programs of the past were never as effective as we recall. Leadership often occurred by accident and unforeseen opportunity, with good people rising to the occasion. Major buying commands had similar challenges to those of today. Promotions often came too fast. Understanding and embracing new trends, types, policies, statute, and regulation in contracting occurred then as now. The qualifications of those leading and implementing those then-new contracting challenges were just as questionable. History can repeat itself. The government has changed in many ways, but workforce challenges have been discussed consistently with each generation.
Most of today’s up-and-coming acquisition workforce is energetic and up to the challenge and perhaps the previous workforce generation wasn’t as great as we may now wish to recall. All of us should certainly be concerned and supportive of today’s contracting workforce, to include loosening unproductive training and travel restrictions, increasing room for monetary reward for superior performance, providing more discretion on programmatic and contracting decisions, and otherwise providing all the technical and management tools available to perform this vital mission. If not, why would anyone stay on?
Having had the opportunity to meet and work with many of this “new generation” of contracting professionals provides a sense that our future is in good hands. Yes, these are tough times, but aren’t they always? Today’s workforce must deal with new legislative, budgetary, regulatory, market, and business initiatives that call for increased needs for project, business, relationship, and technology skills. They may not have to walk up the proverbial steep hill in a snowstorm, against the wind, without a coat on, both ways, to and from the office as many of us did back in the good old days! But have faith and give our new and rising acquisition managers credit. They are smarter than we might think, with competencies equal to, if not superior to, their predecessors.