Acquisition hiring can be a hit-or-miss proposition

Without a standard checklist to refer to when hiring for your agency's acquisition workforce, blogger John Klossner writes that the ability to decipher nonverbal clues may be the next best thing.

F150 in the office

When I first moved to my small Maine town, I had no connections in the local builder community. In order to find a plumber, electrician, carpenter, etc., I had to rely on recommendations from friends or take my chances with Yellow Page listings (this was before the business world went online). This, in turn, led to a wide variety of interviews. Instead of the formal white-collar interview involving business attire and office furniture, I would meet prospective contractors either on a job site or, after his or her work day, over the front hood of their truck in my driveway, with an occasional tour of my prospective project.

I have now lived in my community long enough to move up to the next step in the contractor process where, if I don't know of a specific craftsperson for the job, I can ask not-so-close local friends who feel comfortable enough to give my name to their favorites contractors, or feel safe enough to recommend them to me. It's amazing what living next door or down the street from someone can do for the vetting process. (Maybe we should think about doing this with stalled federal appointees, have them move into the same neighborhood as the committees overseeing their nominations.)

These interviews, similar to those involving office furniture, involve much nonverbal interpretation. Does your contractor's dirty shirt mean they are very good or very bad at what they do? (That depends on the position: A mechanic with an oil-stained shirt is good; an accountant with the same shirt is bad.) If their vehicle is spotless is that better? ( A carpenter with a truck full of used equipment is desirable. A doctor with the same would be undesirable.) And, one of the hardest interpretations to make is whether good verbal skills equate with good skills for your particular household need? I live in Maine. I've had great builders working for me for whom two syllables is a major speech. By the same token, I've had former contractors who could keep me entertained for hours. (Among my favorites was a very friendly gentleman who installed a wood stove pipe connection for me, which the mason who built the chimney later pointed out had been installed the wrong way, even though there were arrows on the pipe showing the proper directions.)

My personal preferences are for contractors who register in the middle on the nonverbal clues' scale--someone who looks like they've actually been working, (spotless clothes and late-model vehicles lose points with me, but not a truck with rust spots larger than a badger.) letting me think they have experience in the field.

What are the nonverbal clues to decipher in the federal acquisition world? How can you tell if someone has the experience you want for your projects? Since the government acquisition world is fairly self-contained, you'd think there would be a standard checklist to refer to when leaning on the hood of an acquisition worker's Ford F-150 pickup truck in the driveway. But no, instead I read of concerns about training programs for the acquisition workforce. The major contention here is that current acquisition training doesn't equate to real world experience. We want acquisition workers with the proverbial dirt under their fingernails. Or, at least, we want to trust the standards of acquisition training. I note that this is similar to previous concerns expressed about IT certification programs--i.e., do two people with similar paper resumés offer the same job skills?

Since acquisition training is provided by a wide variety of agencies and organizations, with an equally wide range of needs and skills to be taught, can a standard acquisition skills training format can be realistically built? That leaves it up to each agency -- and each manager -- to do their homework on their particular needs and the skills of the acquisition contractor they bring in, doesn't it? If I hire a bad carpenter, should I complain about the training he received? (Of course I will, but does that solve my problem?) And, similar to good carpenters, good acquisition workers should probably be treated well; I've found having coffee and snacks helps.

Or you could hire the one with the new truck.