Inside this small business' playbook to weather a shutdown

Another partial shutdown that would have started Friday has seemingly been averted with a funding deal by lawmakers, but government contractors of all shapes and sizes had to plan for it as they would any other kind of budget disruption to some extent.

A repeat of the last five-week closure would have certainly been another headwind over a federal ecosystem still catching up on both the agency front in terms of getting back to normal, plus the contractor side in restarting once-halted projects. The backlog of unpaid invoices from agencies to contractors is also working itself through.

Falls Church, Virginia-based small business Evans Inc. is the kind of company that at first glance would seem to have everything to lose in another shutdown, given the fact that its main customer is the once-shuttered Federal Aviation Administration that could close again. But 70-employee Evans may also have a playbook other small businesses can follow should they find themselves in a similar situation.

Bob Etris, a partner at Evans, described to WT the company’s approach to helping its employees weather the shutdown in several aspects but the first and foremost to keep them on the payroll versus laying them off, and engaging them as they waited for the FAA to open again.

“We wanted to do everything financially possible to minimize the impact to their income and livelihood,” Etris said.

This would not appear easy on the surface as 90 percent of Evans’ business is with the FAA, but the company found a way by diverting some staffers to internal work in hopes of it paying off in the long-term.

“In a services business, people’s time is your money,” Etris told WT. “When they’re not doing revenue-generating work, we set aside time go to staff meetings, had them take time off, set aside other amounts with internal initiatives supporting our growth of the business and investing in improvements to how we operate.”

Some of that internal-facing work involved either training or internal research-and-development initiatives to develop new offerings. This is not unlike the moves many larger contractors made to keep employees active and engaged while they waited for their agency customers to reopen.

Stop-work orders from the FAA piled up over the shutdown’s first two weeks. Typically these internal initiatives are planned over the course of the year but Evans was able to “compress it for weeks” Etris said.

One factor underpinning what contractors faced in helping employees during the shutdown is the larger question about talent, both in competing for skilled labor and finding new sources of it. Market analysts and contracting executives have noted to WT that the shutdown certainly is disruptive and could have some long-term effects.

However, they added that the situation turned into either a positive or negative depending on how companies take care of their people.

“Everyone took away a different feeling from this experience… how they were impacted and how it made them feel about where they were working,” Etris said. “A number of people left the shutdown feeling they worked for a company that cared about them a little bit or lot less.

“I hope the vast majority of employees felt like here we managed through it and it turned out okay.”

That is in the near-term, however. Etris does have some long-term concerns about recruiting young talent to work in the federal ecosystem, either as a civilian employee or contractor.

“You see everything in the news the last few years with how sequestration and shutdowns have become a new norm,” Etris said. “You worry with people in their early 20s thinking about starting a job in the federal government.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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