By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A practical way to spice things up for new contracting employees

One of the biggest problems for getting new hires to stay in the contracting workforce is that they are given clerical-style work to execute, say, simple orders off the GSA schedules or other very small purchases that require little skill. Except maybe for the very first few weeks on the job when a person may be starting from close to scratch, this is a terrible idea, that demotivates these new employees and dramatically underuses the talents of these people, who have college degrees, often with business majors, and often some significant work experience.

Vern Edwards, a smart procurement observer and trainer with whom I sometimes disagree but always respect, has been arguing recently that a solution to this problem is for the government to make more use of the job classifications GS-1105 ("purchasing agent") and GS-1106 ("procurement clerk"). The idea would be to use people, who would not need a college degree, to do this kind of work.

A little history here. We used to have a lot more 1105's doing small purchases, but the introduction of the government credit card in the 1990's eliminated the need for many of these people, because transactions under $2,500 came increasingly to be done directly by the end user, using the credit card. So a good deal of the procurement workforce downsizing of the 1990's involved eliminating most of these positions.

This was a good idea, but it went too far. We still have small purchases being done out of contracting shops, and, if there are no 1105's to do them, they get assigned to young contract specialists. However, it makes much more sense to give this work to people who don't seek an opportunity to be involved in complicated, discretion-filled work and who need jobs that can be properly performed by people with a high school education.

Making this switch is a win-win -- it gives useful work to high school grads, while allowing college grads to get greater exposure to work that is more challenging for them. It also saves the government salary money, because one should not be hiring contract specialists for work that lower-graded purchasing agents could do equally well. As Edwards points out, the military uses enlisted people -- high-school graduates -- to make many of these small purchases.

A bunch of policy issues need to be resolved -- different agencies could of course try different approaches, in my view. One is whether these people need to have college degrees. I have strong views on this -- I think college degrees are not only unnecessary, they are probably undesirable at this level. College grads these days are going to want work that requires more judgment and challenge than very simple purchases.

A second question is whether these 1105's should be warranted (i.e. have the right to sign contracts). Edwards' view is that they should not be warranted beyond the micro-purchase threshold level (the standard limit for credit card purchases); he feels that on anything above that, a contract specialist should review the work. I am inclined to disagree -- I think, based on performance, 1105's with experience should be able to get warrants for higher dollar amounts.

Some agencies, such as the Veterans Affairs Department, have been using 1105's. I ran into a senior procurement official at the Fed 100 dinner and discussed this idea with her, and she liked it as well. Agencies should go for this.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Fri, May 21, 2010 Troy Seoul, Korea

I just read this article and an email that contained excerpts of Vern Edwards' Aug 09 article in The Government Contractor. At 46 with 24 years of federal service, 13 in contracting, I don't know if I'd quite fit his description of a young 1102, but I do have at least 10 years before I can retire and that seems an eternity under the current conditions. I am a contracting officer with an MBA doing little more than clerical work, but a LOT of it. I've been feeling quite desperate and alone in the wilderness until I read this information. Vern Edwards could not be more spot on in his assessment of the current contracting environment, at least where I work. I won't say where, but it is overseas where we have a terrible time recruiting 1102s. That all pretty much goes away if they are converted to 1105s and would provide desperately sought after employment opportunities for military spouses. This would also reduce associated costs like LQA, home maintenance, and RAT travel. One other problem we see with 1102s is a reluctance to do anything beyond the simplest of tasks, making them quite overpaid for their output. Reading these articles really made my day, year - career - even though he did express doubts about changes being effected anytime soon. At least now I know that I and my fellow KOs are not alone in our thinking.

Tue, Apr 6, 2010 Vern Edwards

We have been innovated nearly to death. We are neck deep in technology, with countless updates and new systems on the way. I am no Luddite, but technology is not the answer to our problems. It is not progress to pay people $60,000+ per year (the base GS-12 salary) and to spend a lot on training and them make them spend time entering data into an online form! Our problems are rooted in a lack of fundamental know-how on the part of the both workers and managers. It should not take a year and a small army to conduct a source selection. A couple of big source selections taken almost as long as U.S. involvement in World War II. It does not take a bachelor's degree to cut a $50 million funding mod or to cut a mod to exercise a $25 million option on a service contract. It does not take a bachelor's degree to prepare the boilerplate sections of an RFP, even one for a major system acquisition. There is lots of good work for people without degrees, give them whatever job title you want. What we need the degreed people for is the planning and execution of complex business transactions. Those people need deep knowledge and the time to put it to work for the public good. If you want to know what's wrong with the acquisition workforce, study the Air Force tanker source selection. Read the GAO's decision in the Boeing protest. We have highly-paid people spending time worrying about how to properly code some Recovery Act data instead of how to develop effective acquisition and source selection plans and how to develop sound pre-negotiation objectives for complex deals. That is the kind of work for which we are now hiring MBA's and JD's as 1102, who we then assign to issue routine orders against schedule contracts. It's crazy, and it will result in heavy recruiting and training expenditures that will mainly benefit the contractors who will eventually hire them away from the Government. We are going to get one chance to fix the acquisition workforce in our lifetimes. That workforce is obligating more than $500 billion per year. If we don't restructure the workforce so that we assign the right people and pay the right salary for the right work, we are going to blow this chance.

Mon, Apr 5, 2010 NOVA Northern Virginia

As leaders we need to influence and change the work that is being sent into the contracting shops. Former CNO Vern used to promote the notion that leadership needed to pay as much attention to "quality of work" as "quality of life." Sailors need not chip paint just because it has always been done that way in the past. Improve the paint, mechanically chip or outsource, but change the status quo. The application of technology to task in our contracting function has been woefully lacking since Dr. Kellman's FASA initiatives. We could really use a functional R&D center to plan, fund, integrate and train our workforce on integrating new technology. We need a lot less admin and much more critical thinking in our work processes. I disagree the the 1106/1105 proposed solution, but really appreciate the debeate. I'm hoping we can gain some consensus on improved innovation for our craft.

Sat, Apr 3, 2010 Vern Edwards

1. Yes. The 1102 position is oversold. Most procurements are relatively simple. Most acquisitions are not for large, complex projects. 2. New recruits should begin with simplified acquisitions, but unless that is all that they are going to do they need not spend more than three months at it. 3. Yes, in the past, there were problems between 1102s and 1106s. However, there was no degree requirement for the 1102 position in the days when 1106s were more plentiful. Moreover, 1106s were almost exclusively women, and they resented being locked into clerical positions and being considered and treated as subservient to the 1102s who were mostly men, typing letters and memos and such. Today, there is an educational prerequisite to entry into the 1102 series, which should be made clear. If the right work is being assigned to the right people, it ought to be apparent why the degree is necessary. A job that does not entail work that requires a college-level education is not an 1102 job. 4. 1106s should not be called clerks or assistants, but “technicians,” a title which eliminates the notion of subservience. They should not type letters and memos for 1102s, which is not necessary in this age of word processing. They should be assisting 1102s, but doing work that needs to be done. They should be treated as valued members of the acquisition workforce who do work of their own, which is necessary and important, such as preparing synopses and the boilerplate parts of solicitations, handling routine coordination, preparing important contractual paperwork like preparing funding mods and option exercise mods. No one should expect that everyone in an 1106 job will stay in that position for a 20 or 30 year career. Why should anyone expect that? We don’t expect all of the new hires to stay in 1102 positions for 20 or 30 years. I spoke with a new 1102 trainee last week who has a JD degree. He mentioned that he planned to stay a couple of years and then seek a court clerkship. So continuous recruitment and training will be necessary in both the 1106 and 1102 fields. That’s the way of today’s world. As for behavior, management must see to it that people are doing what they are supposed to do and doing it well. That’s what happens in the private sector and it’s what should happen in government. We’ve got to demand that people do what they are paid for and fire them if they don’t, instead of letting them hang around for 30 years.

Fri, Apr 2, 2010 Drew C

I have worked in offices where this has been in place before and have the following comments. 1. A mistake we in the 1102 series often make is that we over sell the1102 career field. We create unrealistic expectation in recruiting new entrants. The field is not all about $100m dollar procurements, but encompasses the mundane small purchases as well. 2. New recruits to the field need the small purchases to cut their teeth. It takes time to fully train and develop a competent contract specialist, a process that shouldn't be rushed or short circuited. 3. Problems usually develop between the procurement series when this type of labor sharing arrangement is in place. Invariably those in the 1105 and 1106 series become discontented with their positions. This causes them to start behaving differently such as pushing back on the work assignment which they believe should be performed by 1102s. Often demand s for promotion to grades beyond those allowed by their respective series are sought, as are warrant levels higher than allow by their series,. Finally to be promoted to the higher grades or to gain access to the higher level work many gain the educational level requirements to convert to the 1102 series, leaving shortages in 1105 and 1106 series while making it difficult to manage the 1102 series. I find it a real problems in expecting people, young or otherwise, to be satisfied with doing clerical work with no possibility of gaining increased responsibility , right alongside, sometimes younger people doing more challenging and interesting work, who are working at the higher level and being paid more simply because the 1102 has a college degree.

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