Battling more than demographics

Job hopping, premature promotions could be more of a threat to the acquisition workforce.

Officials at the Federal Acquisition Institute are worried about the loss of federal acquisition employees to retirement, but a bigger concern could be a constant turnover at individual agencies as employees exploit the dynamics of supply and demand. FAI reported only a slight increase in the retirement rate of federal acquisition employees in the past year. Despite much-publicized concerns about an exodus of acquisition expertise from the federal government, retirement rates among eligible employees generally increased no more than 2 percent last year, according to FAI’s latest annual report on the federal acquisition workforce. However, Neal Couture, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, said retirement might not be the greatest cause for concern. “The biggest issue is that you have job hopping by qualified candidates from one agency to another,” he said. “And what that does is artificially escalate the responsibility level of people perhaps before they’re prepared to handle the position.”Couture said federal agencies compete with one another for talent, in some cases promoting GS-12 employees into GS-13, GS-14 and GS-15 positions. “Individuals are taking advantage of opportunities, which is good for them, but you end up essentially with a reduction in the qualification levels of the workforce,” he said.Although more than 50 percent of contracting employees will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years, FAI noted that retirement eligibility doesn’t mean that employees will retire immediately. For example, among the 10 percent of GS-1102 contracting employees who were eligible to retire between April 2007 and April 2008, only 3 percent planned to retire during that time. GS-1102 is the Office of Personnel Management’s job classification code for federal contracting employees.The total federal acquisition workforce in fiscal 2007 was 61,434. Since 1988, its size has fluctuated from a high of 67,085 in 1992 to a low of 56,384 in 2000, but it has typically been around 60,000, the report states. Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said civilian agencies have projected a need to hire more acquisition employees, based on preliminary assessments of their current workforce needs. The demographic changes in the federal acquisition workforce present new opportunities for the government to use information technology to automate its acquisition business processes and address its workforce training needs, according to the FAI report. The institute recommends that the government make greater use of IT to support acquisition business processes and train and develop employees. “Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 applications hold tremendous potential for learning and development of the acquisition workforce,” the report states. FAI officials also recommend the use of automated certification management and IT-based career development planning.Couture said technology will always improve efficiency if managed properly. “However, the fundamental issue with contract management is one of business acumen and judgment, and the only way that an employee gains that expertise and insight is through experience,” he said. “None of these social-networking tools will help with that when it comes down to judgment and decision-making.”He added that the one exception is the potential use of social-networking technologies for mentoring purposes, “especially to help the less experienced and newly promoted connect with mentors who may not be geographically near them.”

A gain for contracting

Despite officials’ concerns about losing acquisition specialists to retirement and private-sector employment, the federal government ended fiscal 2007 with a net gain of 490 contracting employees.

Here is a profile of turnover among federal employees in GS-1102 series jobs, the government’s classification code for contracting employees, based on the most recent available data.

Contracting workforce at beginning of fiscal 2007: 27,944 employees

New hires: 2,737 employees

Attrition: 2,247 employees

Attrition rate: 8 percent

Attrition among those eligible to retire: 771 employees

Attrition rate among those eligible to retire: 19 percent (up from 17 percent a year ago)

Contracting workforce at end of fiscal 2007: 28,434

Net gain: 490 employees

Rate of internal to external hires: 0.7

Source: Federal Acquisition Institute

Mary Mosquera contributed to this article.