Contractors face hiring crunch

The government's lack of young workers might get all the attention, but contractors face their own human capital crisis.

The Washington Post today has a story lamenting the lack of younger workers in the federal workforce, particularly the under-30 set.

Our sister publication, FCW, also has a story today about how the government wants to make 2015 the year of talent. It’s long been recognized that the government has difficulty attracting younger workers. There also is a rising tide of potential retirees. There are many more people closer to retirement than there are people under 30 in the federal workforce.

The pipeline of replacements is paltry to say the least.

This is a double-edged sword for contractors. It means that even if the government wants to reduce its use of contractors, they just don’t have the people to do that. That means they either have to outsource work or they have to look for ways technology can make the remaining workers more productive.

Either way, there is a benefit for contractors.

The downside, though, contractors have a customer who stretched thin and overworked. There is little time for development and training. Mistakes are made. Decision making suffers.

We see plenty of evidence across government of this – bid protests, procurement delays, cost overruns, etc.

It is in contractors’ best interest that agencies find and hire good people.

But as I said, this challenge of the government is well known and well documented. What isn’t as well known or documented is that contractors face the same issue.

I hear from plenty of executives that human capital is one of their biggest challenges. They need to find people, hire people and keep them. Payrolls are top heavy with workers who are close to retiring in the next five years.

The challenge no longer is competing with other contractors for talent; it’s about competing with other industries.

Here, government and contractors share some of the same image problems as the Washington Post story lays out.

There is an overarching sense of dysfunction when you look at the government. The view that working with the government, including working for a contractor, means a career beset with bureaucracy and requirements that have nothing to do with the actual job.

Why work under those conditions?

Contractors have some advantage over their government counterparts in that they have more flexibility with pay, benefits and career development. But that only goes so far. The government can help by reducing requirements and restrictions around how contractors compensate workers.

The government also needs to be more efficient and predictable with procurement and how it manages projects.

Of course, Congress and the White House need to step up and pass budgets in a timely predictable manner.

A couple tall orders, I know, but the long-term risks of not addressing workforce for contractors and government are higher costs and greater inefficiency.

There also is a need for government and industry to pay attention to its image. I’ve long believed that contractors have not done enough to explain the vital role they play in helping our government operate and complete its mission.

The mission is the market’s strongest selling point and the differentiator you have over other markets. You’re not just hiring a systems administrator, you’re hiring a systems administrator who's supporting the warfighter or the wounded soldier or sick children or keeping our parklands clean.

The mission is really what can set you apart.

There is no quick and easy fix to this problem. Even if we put the right solutions in place today, it would be years before we reverse the direction we are going in.

But we have to try. Too much is at stake.

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