Lawmakers Press for Relaxed Hiring Rules on Gov't Contracts

Lawmakers Press for Relaxed Hiring Rules on Gov't Contracts

Sen. John Warner

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

Congress is close to approving legislation that would ease restrictions on education and experience requirements for workers employed on government information technology contracts, a change that industry officials say would relieve some of the worker shortage problems they face.

Two separate measures are under consideration on Capitol Hill. One is an amendment to the fiscal 2001 defense authorization bill sponsored by Sen. John Warner, R-Va. The bill passed the Senate July 13 by a 97-3 vote. The other, a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis III, R-Va., passed the House May 2 with a voice vote.

The House bill would ease restrictions on all government contracts to purchase IT services, unless the agency contracting officer specifies why the restrictions are needed. The Senate bill eases restrictions on performance-based contracts only, and directs the administration to establish guidelines for setting requirements on other types of IT contracts.

The two measures likely will be reconciled in a final defense authorization bill later this year, according to spokesmen for Warner and Davis.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a statement against the House bill May 2, saying that while the administration supports the bill's goals in principle, "the administration favors addressing this issue through better management practices, rather than through the enactment of additional laws."

OMB did not issue a similar statement when it commented June 6 on the Senate defense authorization bill.

Industry representatives are optimistic despite administration objections, especially because it is considered un-likely that the President would veto the defense bill over this issue.

"According to the latest reports [the measure will have] little trouble passing," said Scott Wilson, a human resources manager for Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s eastern U.S. operations. The Plano, Texas-based company had more than $519 million in federal contracts last year, according to market research firm Federal Sources Inc. in McLean, Va.

Federal agencies commonly require that contractors on IT jobs have a four-year college degree and three years of work experience. These requirements unfairly limit companies' ability to bid on government contracts and place some of their best workers on the job, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of enterprise solutions for the Information Technology Association of America.

"This language appears in almost any [request for proposal]. They've been doing this for years and years and years, and it's no longer valid in today's marketplace," Grkavac said. "With the level and training and education that is available now, it's not necessary to have the three-year requirement."

The practice also makes an acute shortage of technology workers even worse, according to a report issued last year by the Virginia Commission on Information Technology. The commission found that community college graduates with technical specialties could fill many openings, but federal agencies are reluctant to hire them for IT jobs.

With a shortage of about 30,000 high-tech workers in Northern Virginia, a hub for government contractors, and more than 800,000 nationwide, "we should be holding bidders accountable for the cake and not the ingredients," said David Marin, spokesman for Davis.

Grkavac and others pointed out that Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., Michael Dell, chairman and chief executive officer of Dell Computer Corp., and Larry Ellison, chairman and chief executive officer of Oracle Corp., would not typically be allowed to work on government contracts because none graduated college. And many other workers are left out, too.

"You could have a worker in a company who is 18 years old, but is a computer whiz kid, yet he is unable to work on that contract due to the rules. There is a huge supply of workers that is just being left out," said Geoff Schwartzman, spokesman for Warner.

Eliminating education requirements "will open the door for things like hiring people who are cooperative education students, college interns or people who have completed training programs in the community ? people who have business experience but not technical experience," Wilson said. "As federal contractors, we're all looking for that pool of workers. We need to start from the entry level and grow talent."

Federal agencies aren't just making it difficult for contractors to bid their best people; they may be hurting their end products as well, said Charles Cantus, acting president of the Professional Services Council, a national trade association that represents for-profit professional and technical services contractors.

"Why should the government handicap itself by precluding contractors from offering these highly qualified people just because they don't have a degree on their wall?" he asked.

Cantus said he hopes the language of the House bill will be accepted in the final defense authorization legislation. That bill, the Federal Contractor Flexibility Act, would restrict the use of mandatory minimum personnel experience and educational requirements in the procurement of IT goods or services unless the contracting officer determines and explains in writing that agency needs cannot be met without such requirements.

The Davis bill, Grkavac said, "lets the companies decide who the best people are. And in cases where an agency feels they really need requirements, that's fine."

The amendment to the Senate's National Defense Authorization Act would restrict the use of mandatory minimum personnel experience and educational requirements in performance-based contracts for the procurement of information technology goods or services.

Further, it would ask the administration to specify the circumstances under which minimum education and experience requirements would apply to other contracts, Schwartzman said.

The government is using increasingly performance-based contracts, whereby contractors are paid based upon meeting a series of performance-related objectives. Still, many contracts are based on time and materials, and "the ability of a contractor to get that contract is dependent on quality of people and price," said attorney Devon Hewitt, a government contract partner at Shaw Pittman in McLean, Va. "Sen. Warner's [defense authorization] bill wouldn't reach that market."

The Warner bill "doesn't solve the problem," Marin said. "We want it to apply to all federal agency solicitations of [information technology] goods and services." In an July 17 letter to Warner, the multi-association Acquisition Reform Working Group voiced its support for the Senate version, saying "the practice of requiring mandatory personnel experience and education requirements drives up prices and reduces competition and limits the flexibility of offers. The government would get better results if it issued performance-based solicitations that leave it up to the individual bidders to propose how to satisfy the requirements."

Members of the Washington-based group include the American Electronics Association, the Aerospace Industries Association and the Contract Services Association.

"We're confident that this provision will remain in the bill. It's got a lot of support," Schwartzman said.

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