Steve Kelman talks to a new crop of future contracting professionals.
I spoke recently with another group of about 35 young contracting interns — many fresh out of college or grad school, with the government benefiting from the weak economy — this time at a major Defense Department contracting installation. I would say that, on the whole, the mood among the interns was far better than at some of the civilian organizations I visited last spring and blogged about.
To my amazement, the group included about five or so Presidential Management Fellows (formerly Presidential Management Interns), the government's elite entry-level program for which contracting usually has a really tough time competing for people. My experience was in line with the stereotype that the Defense Department has its act more together when it comes to managing the contracting function.
Here are the results of a few polls I did among those present.
1.) By a vote of 30-to-4, the interns said that on the whole they were satisfied with their experience so far. They cited help from supervisors, being trusted and given responsibility, and empowerment as the things most likely to create a good experience. Managers, take note!
2.) I asked those who had no parents working for the government whether working in the government so far was better, the same or worse than their expectations. Fifteen said it was better, nine the same and three worse.
3.) When I asked them if they had been put in situations in which they felt they were in over their heads, virtually all said they had. However, they also said — all of them — that those cases in which they felt overwhelmed ended up being among their best experiences. Managers, take note!
4.) I asked them about the quality of the training they had received so far from the Defense Acquisition University. Twenty-one thought the residential training was good but the online training bad. (None thought the online training was good and the residential bad.) Ten thought both were bad, and only two said both were good. This was not a ringing endorsement.
5.) I asked them to rate on a 1-to-5 scale the overall message they were receiving from their training so far. On my scale, a rating of 1 meant they were being trained to know the rules, tell the program people everything they cannot do and avoid potential trouble, and 5 meant the message is to be a business expert and help the government get good deals. The answers were a classic bell-shaped curve: One voted 1, seven voted 2, 19 voted 3, 10 voted 4, and one voted 5. We could probably do better, but that's not too bad, all things considered.
6.) I asked them if, overall, there was a strong performance work ethic in their organization (among contracting staff as a whole). Here, the answer was pretty devastating. Nobody in the group said yes. They seemed to feel there were too many employees who were coasting. This is, of course, matched by the impression of the older employees that the young ones are completely ignorant and clueless about how to do the job and need to wait years before learning enough to get any responsibility. The senior person who shared the podium with me commented to the interns that a lot of senior contracting people seem to believe it will be 10 years before the kids know enough to do serious work, which this person thought was crazy. He told the interns that if they worked hard, they could be pretty much ready to do the hardest contracting work in just three or four years.
One intern made a very interesting point: "We would like to be able to come up with new ideas for how to improve the way contracting is done here. But the older people seem to just want to make sure we learn as fast as possible to do things the way they already do them."
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