By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

New federal hires want meaningful work

A few days ago, I took part in a conference panel at an event Acquisition Solutions presented. I addressed the importance, and the challenges, of providing challenging jobs to new, young contracting employees in the government.

Later, five young people, newly-hired and participating in "internship" programs (they really didn't like that word -- for their friends outside government, it implied non-paying student jobs) at two federal agencies, came up to me to talk. I invited them to sit down with me at lunch, and we had an interesting conversation.
The internship programs involve rotations across different offices in their agencies. The young feds told me that the challenges and quality of the work they are being given has varied widely. In some places, they have had interesting assignments, in others they are just sitting around -- sometimes literally with no assigned work at all.

Needless to say, any instance these young people experience where they are not given work sends a terrible signal to them about expectations of federal employees. It's particularly weird given that contracting offices are said to be overwhelmed with work. In other cases, the new hires are getting clerical work, including, in one instance, punching holes in papers to create a binder.

They all said they want to be challenged beyond their current abilities, not given assignments below their abilities.
I asked them about the best supervisor they have had, and what made that person the best. They all agreed that their best supervisor was the one most open to answering their questions. "For a good supervisor, there's no such thing as a dumb question," one of them said to me.  "Even if I ask about what does an acronym mean, it's because I don't know and need to know."  Another said that their best supervisor had let them attend some meetings with higher-level people in the organization, so they could get a bigger picture of how the organization works. 
I asked them whether their organizations did anything to encourage them to understand the link between their acquisition jobs and the mission of the organization. Most of them said that this had indeed occurred.

One of the new hires said the office staff had been able to visit a site using equipment the office was buying, and said this was really positive and inspirational.  Another told of an example where the supervisor explained how what was being bought would contribute to an important national security goal, and also said this really made the assignment a much more meaningful one.  However, all of them said they didn't feel enough connection with their organization's mission, and a few said they were looking for opportunities to work in a program office rather than contracting.  (At least, they'd be staying in the government.)
Let's keep this dialogue going.


Posted by Steve Kelman on May 21, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Fri, May 28, 2010

As an employee who as been in the Government for 25+ years, who came into the Govt upon graduating College and one who has tranisitioned a few times between organziations, I have had both very good and very poor experiences with the way organizations "in-process" and "on-board" employees. It is critically important to do it well or it leaves a "poor taste in the mouth" that is difficult to rid. It can be fatal to an organization who is trying to set up a relationship with a University as those same "Interns" return to their alma mater and share their negative experiences...Good Government starts with good people, good people should start with good experiences based upon good, efficient processes and supporting infrastructure.

Wed, May 26, 2010 Concerned for our future

One of the pitfalls of the intern program IS the constant shifting. Unfortunately, in todays world, acquisitions of any size or importance move slowly due to the ever increasing number of rules, reviews and approvals required. Interns in my organization are "rotated" every 6 months so they dont have the advantage of seeing a procurement from start to finish. They may be assigned to location A and be dropped in the middle of an acquisition then be rotated to location B working on an acquisition that is still in market survey mode. During all this rotation, they are also sent to classes that from the few Ive seen thru my organization, equate to if you show up, you pass. Equally unfortunate is the treatment alot of the Senior Acquisition people get who lack a college degree and only have 30+ years of experience in their pocket with no promotion potential. When you mix no potential with promoted to quickly interns who have an elevated view of themselves, it is a disaster in the making. We have associates in our office who have graduated from a 2 year intern program that in under a year, were given a Contracting Officers Warrant. These are bright young individuals who want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they do not have the qualifications or experience to know they dont know the field well enough to sign on the dotted line, so they DO. Coupled with the fact that most acquisition shops are "controlled" by the program shops, these kids are signing orders and contracts that are NOT in the best interest of the Government. I have been in this field my entire adult life and started from the bottom without the advantage of an intern program because I lacked a degree to get into a program. The experience I gained over the years is far more valuable than a college degree yet that experience no longer counts. I had a small team of interns to support me on a project and in going thru a price reasonableness exercise, I had an intern refuse to do as I asked for "he didn't go to college to do this". This is a tricky field and bottom line, if you dont start at the beginning, the end won't make sense. In order for the "intern" concept to work, these kids need to see a procurement from start to finish and know WHY various steps are taken. Not every day will be a challenge, but the overall field is, should they be afforded the opportunity to see the whole picture.

Mon, May 24, 2010

Having KOs that actually understand the mission that the goods or services are being purchased for? What a concept! Note that the 'program areea' usually have their own intern/upward mobility programs, so for someone to expect to jump from an aquisition intern program to a mission area, is probably not realistic. Even if they pull it off, they will likely end up being the liason back to whatever activity provides the contracting support.

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