Marc Berman is president of Vector Technical Resources, an IT and staff augmentation company servicing the private, federal and state sectors
In federal IT procurement, the bid-to-win phase can be a challenge – for agency buyers as well as contractors. Once the agency approves the desired candidates for a particular project or program, there is often a concern that the talent promised will be unavailable once the contract is finalized due to the often lengthy waiting period– which can span from 90 days to, in some cases, up to a year and beyond. This extended window of uncertainty, during which proposed talent have no guarantee of actually getting work with the contractor, can cause apprehension and additional challenges for agency program managers in managing the pipeline of qualified candidates to ensure optimal placements and results.
In order for a bidder to demonstrate successfully that they can do the proposed work better than their competitors, it is critically important for them to be able to explain how they will retain proposed staff during the bid-to-win period. But, as the economy picks up, candidates have more options, making it increasingly tougher to hold on to them after offering an opportunity.
For example, we recently extended a conditional offer to a Sharepoint developer. Five weeks went by while we waited for a decision by the agency. In the meantime, our candidate received three other job offers. When the agency finally called to say they wanted to hire the candidate, it turned out that he had taken another job a day earlier.
So, with this said, what can agency program managers do to make sure the talent they need on a contract is there when they need them? Here are some insider tips:
- During the bid-to-win period, maintain open lines of communication with bidders. Let them know, to the best of your knowledge, when to expect the award and how long it takes to get clearance.
- Encourage bidders to look for candidates who are already working. This is one of the keys to talent retention. It's very difficult to retain someone who is in the job market and not working. Often, they simply can't afford to wait for a contracted position to come through.
- Encourage bidders to ask the right questions in the talent screening process. Has the candidate done prior work on a similar project and enjoyed it? Is the candidate looking to challenge their skills by working at the next level of an IT program? Does the candidate desire more responsibility? What's more important to them, salary and benefits or the stability of working on a long-term program?
- Insist that bidders obtain letters of commitment from all proposed staff stating that they would be available if the contractor wins the award. Once letters of commitment are in-hand, the contractor should keep in regular contact with candidates to keep them apprised of developments during the bid-to-win period.
- Get all of the people involved in the hiring of a particular candidate on board with the process as early as possible, and get any minutia out of the way. Sometimes a cleared candidate may need an interim security clearance. Saving a day now in the clearance process could save several weeks later, when unavailability of key staff could derail the start of the project.
- Be open to meeting proposed candidates. Encourage contractors to bring them in to meet the team they will be working with at the government site. Get buy in from key agency staff so that a candidate can win the hearts and minds of everyone who has a stake in the game.
- Set yourself up for staffing success by being proactive when you make the award. If you know on Monday who won the contract, don't wait until Friday to let the winning bidder know. As illustrated by our Sharepoint developer example, every day matters when it comes to talent retention.
The Way Forward
All of us who are involved in the federal IT talent acquisition process – agencies, contractors and staffing professionals – must be open to a better way, because the old way of holding on to talent isn't working.
Agency program managers need to do whatever they can to shorten the bid-to-win period. They also need to keep bidders in the loop as the award process moves along. Contractors, meanwhile, need to reach out to their government customers and educate them on how agency decision makers can speed up the process.
Last but not least, agencies and contractors should demand that staffing firms be willing to invest the time and energy required to drill down and find the right people for federal IT programs, and then do what it takes to hold on to top quality candidates by building relationships based on honesty and trust.
The goal is to make sure the best people are working for the federal government. When that happens, it helps us all.