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Leaving a Civilian Agency for DoD Contracting?

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I have worked at a non-DoD civilian agency (VA) for several years, and have heard from more than one SES director that if I want to advance to senior GS or SES positions within the agency, I should leave the VA, get experience in another agency, and then come back to VA. I was a bit surprised at these comments, as these were both SES members in leadership positions within the agency, and yet they were recommending that I leave to get outside experience. A few years have passed since those conversations, and I am now at a grade level that might be more difficult to change agencies, and particularly going from a non-DoD agency to a DoD component. I am now contemplating a downgrade to get into a DoD agency in my area. My grade would change, but my pay would stay roughly the same, if stepped out.

 

I'm sure I can't be the only person who has contemplated such a move. I am curious about the experience of career GS-1102s on this forum who have gone from a civilian agency to a DOD contracting activity or vice versa. Was the experience career enhancing? Did it offer you additional skills (non-commercial items, different contract types, etc.)? Would you recommend it? Thanks in advance for sharing your experience.

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On 1/26/2018 at 2:52 PM, VA1102 said:

Was the experience career enhancing?

Yes, generally moving to DOD will open doors. It did for me. There is a mystique about DOD contracting in the civilian contracting world, even though the work can be positively mundane.

On 1/26/2018 at 2:52 PM, VA1102 said:

Did it offer you additional skills (non-commercial items, different contract types, etc.)?

It depends on where you're going. The agency I went to purchases 90%+ commercial items.

On 1/26/2018 at 2:52 PM, VA1102 said:

Would you recommend it?

Yes, particularly coming from VA, which right or wrong, tends to have a negative reputation within the 1102 field. Of course it depends on what you want and where you're heading in your career I suppose.

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I have worked for the Army, the VA, GSA and the EPA and each experience was different.  I do believe having experience at different agencies is career enhancing, but then I've known people who have stayed at a single agency and moved all the way up (so no help there, sorry).  I am currently a GS-15 and I do believe changing agencies helped me get to this level. I started with the Army entity and primarily completed post support contracts and purchase orders.  The grades there were very limited.  At GSA the grades were much higher but I found the work much less rewarding and took a downgrade to leave.  I've done two separate stints with the VA and found the work rewarding and depending on the office there is upward mobility available.With the EPA I found it rewarding although I have learned that being with a small civilian agency definitely comes with its own problems and many DoDers have difficulty in adjusting to a non-DoD environment (I consider the VA a DoD wannabe). Again, I apologize that this may not be helpful but I believe each individual has unique experiences and what works for one may not work so well for another. 

As far as additional skills goes the place I learned the most was with the Army where they had a "everyone does everything" approach so I never knew when I walked in the door whether I'd be buying a thermal imager for the fire department, a $2M construction project, training services or buying some commercial products. There were also opportunities to learn about cost contracting there.  At the GSA, I learned about Schedules contracting but nothing else. It was very limiting. At the VA they put you in a silo where you only buy one type of thing.  Yes, that makes you a specialist at that one thing but doesn't offer you the diversity of knowledge you need to grow in contracting. 

Would I recommend it?  At the very least, since you are with the VA, if you are in a silo situation I would recommend that you move around between the teams to learn about the various types of contracting. I don't know that you'd need to leave the VA to grow but having perspective and experiences from different agencies can be helpful, although not absolutely necessary.  So I guess... yes... I would recommend it, but know that you have as much of a chance to going to a worse situation than you do a better one. 

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Read as many SES (or other positions you want) bios as possible, pick the ones you think you want to be, and notice the commonalities. Then, try to emulate them.

Moving around helps your credibility, experience, and salary (both public and private sector). 

@FrankJon is correct about how the civilian agencies get starry-eyed about DoD experience and credentials. 

If you're interested in the private sector, move around and don't just stay at one civilian agency. 

Also consider chasing different types of contracting experience, e.g. R&D, BAA, big dollars, DoD MDAPs, commercial, SAP, GSA Schedules, IDIQ, technology, operational, services, commodities. "The more you know..."

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14 hours ago, Desparado said:

So I guess... yes... I would recommend it, but know that you have as much of a chance to going to a worse situation than you do a better one. 

100% agree. Also, a worse situation can sometimes yield a great learning opportunity.

13 hours ago, PepeTheFrog said:

Read as many SES (or other positions you want) bios as possible, pick the ones you think you want to be, and notice the commonalities. Then, try to emulate them.

Moving around helps your credibility, experience, and salary (both public and private sector). 

Pepe, as always, is spot on.

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I started out as a GS-7/9 with the Army, competed for GS-11 and for GS-12.  I then moved to the US Army Corps of Engineers laterally.  Selected as a supervisory GS-13, I moved to the Navy NAVSUP where I was eventually selected for a non-supervisor GS-14 with Navy MSC.  I was then selected for a Supervisory GS-14 with GSA PBS.  I gained experience in commercial and non-commercial material/supplies, personal and non-personal services, IT and Engineering services, and construction/restoration/rehabilitation.  I am a firm believer in gaining diversified experiences.  It is my experience that Hiring Officials look for it.  Working for DOD established my foundation in the FAR, DFAR, AFAR and NMCAR.  Switching to a non-DoD agency is less of a challenge because of that foundation.  

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3 hours ago, leo1102 said:

Working for DOD established my foundation in the FAR, DFAR, AFAR and NMCAR.  Switching to a non-DoD agency is less of a challenge because of that foundation.  

I don't know that I would say a non-DoD agency is "less of a challenge".  The challenges are just different.  Organizational structure (or lack thereof), ambiguity in policy, and other things can make a non-DoD agency very challenging.  I actually found working for DoD much easier because of the structure.  Everything was already set in place. Granted, it stiffled innovation, but that's a whole different challenge.  I recently had an employee leave my current agency because she couldn't deal with the lack of structure and went back to DoD. 

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VA1102,

I'll offer one caution to you as you consider the jump to DoD.  Depending on the agency, if your Contracting certification is not DAWIA, you might be required to recertify.  I have a co-worker with FAC, who had to recertify with DAU / DAWIA courses.  That stated, there is nothing wrong with refresher training.  Make the jump and be welcomed aboard.

 

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18 hours ago, Desparado said:

I don't know that I would say a non-DoD agency is "less of a challenge".  

I meant that because of the foundation built on my DoD experience, the transfer to a non-DoD was made easier.  I did not say that a non-DoD agency is less challenging.  Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

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17 hours ago, MBrown said:

VA1102,

I'll offer one caution to you as you consider the jump to DoD.  Depending on the agency, if your Contracting certification is not DAWIA, you might be required to recertify.  I have a co-worker with FAC, who had to recertify with DAU / DAWIA courses.  

 

Very True - I know of a GS-14 who transferred to DoD with a FAC-C Level III who had to take all Level II DAWIA courses to earn his Level II DAWIA certification.  On the other hand, I just transferred to a non-DoD agency with DAWIA Level III and I was presented with my FAC-C Level III without having to take any FAC-C courses.  

 

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4 hours ago, leo1102 said:

Very True - I know of a GS-14 who transferred to DoD with a FAC-C Level III who had to take all Level II DAWIA courses to earn his Level II DAWIA certification.

This is what I call job security.

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On ‎1‎/‎29‎/‎2018 at 9:49 AM, Desparado said:

Would I recommend it?  At the very least, since you are with the VA, if you are in a silo situation I would recommend that you move around between the teams to learn about the various types of contracting. I don't know that you'd need to leave the VA to grow but having perspective and experiences from different agencies can be helpful, although not absolutely necessary.  So I guess... yes... I would recommend it, but know that you have as much of a chance to going to a worse situation than you do a better one. 

Thanks for sharing all of that, Desparado. The last paragraph (quoted) made me think quite a bit. I think one of the challenges at VHA is that we're organized into product line teams, and that moving to other teams to become well versed in different areas of contracting (services, commodities, construction, etc.) can be a big challenge. I've been in the commercial services arena for about seven years, and am ready for something new. Perhaps moving to a different product line such as construction, might be a valuable and career enhancing alternative to leaving the agency. We sure do take a beating working for the VA, but it is a great mission.

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On ‎1‎/‎30‎/‎2018 at 1:57 PM, MBrown said:

VA1102,

I'll offer one caution to you as you consider the jump to DoD.  Depending on the agency, if your Contracting certification is not DAWIA, you might be required to recertify.  I have a co-worker with FAC, who had to recertify with DAU / DAWIA courses.  That stated, there is nothing wrong with refresher training.  Make the jump and be welcomed aboard.

 

I had wondered about that. I have held a FAC-C III for some time, and received both my FAC-C II and III certifications before the most recent FAC-C refresh that aligned with current DAWIA requirements. I was wondering if my FAC-C III would somehow transfer to an equivalent DAWIA III certification, as I meet all of the other requirements, or if I'd be looking at doing a substantive amount of remedial DAU coursework. It sounds like the latter. Thanks for the input.

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On ‎1‎/‎27‎/‎2018 at 8:37 AM, FrankJon said:

Yes, particularly coming from VA, which right or wrong, tends to have a negative reputation within the 1102 field. Of course it depends on what you want and where you're heading in your career I suppose.

I'm actually curious about changing opinions of VA contracting. I've been with the agency seven years, and the contracting competencies across the enterprise are considerably better than when I arrived. It's not uniform of course, but overall, I think it's definitely trending upwards. However, your comment is something that always worries me when I consider other job opportunities outside the agency, and particularly within the DOD. How pervasive is the "VA stigma," and has it changed at all in recent years? Does my perception of VA contracting improving match what other acquisition folks perceive from outside the agency?

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1 hour ago, VA1102 said:

How pervasive is the "VA stigma," and has it changed at all in recent years? Does my perception of VA contracting improving match what other acquisition folks perceive from outside the agency?

This is hard to determine - it's not like VA comes up often in conversation. I think people are generally aware that there is a huge number of VA contracting offices. The perception that I've generally heard is that some are strong or fine, but the majority are not. The negativity usually pertains to the prospect of going to the VA, not individuals coming from VA.

In truth, I don't believe that having VA on your resume will stigmatize you significantly, if at all. Cream rises to the top. People understand that a poor performing office is poor performing not because they've never had strong talent, but because they can't retain strong talent (referring to VA contracting as a whole, not your office specifically).

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@VA1102

Here come some gross, unsubstantiated generalizations and opinions, based entirely on personal experiences and preferences.

Some contracting offices buy sexy stuff, like fighter aircraft, ships, spacecraft, space exploration missions, deep sea exploration, etc. All contracting is drudgery to some extent (more so today than in my youth), but the work is more challenging and fun in agencies in which the program people you support are working on cool, exciting stuff and are mission-driven. Routine buying has a much higher drudgery factor. I'd rather die than work in an office that buys only commercial items. (That's just me.)

If you're looking for a challenge and some fun, then when looking at agencies look at their missions and what kinds of program people you'll be supporting. That will tell you more about the work and about what kinds of places they will be to work in than looking at the contracting offices. The strongly mission-driven outfits are the best. Be thoughtful before going to work in agencies run by a professional class like doctors (e.g., NIH ) and lawyers (e.g., Justice). If you are not a doctor or a lawyer you will always be a second class citizen. But it's okay to work with physical scientists and engineers if you are a go-getter and problem-solver, because they hate bureaucracy and love people who can cut through it. I loved working with those folks, even though they sometimes drove me crazy when I had to work overtime to save their asses from themselves. I loved being the goto guy for finding a way. Sad to say, but when I walk through an office in which every cube has two computer monitors I get a little heartsick. It seems to me that contracting work is more data-entry driven today than mission-driven. I can feel my arteries harden when I walk around in those kinds of offices. I want to be able to go down a hall to the engineer's office with the spec for some new sensor, sit down and say: Okay, Jane, tell me what this does and how it works. And I want to do contracting, not policy.

Finally, I would rather work for the military than for a civilian agency. Better focus and discipline. You argue like heck until the boss decides, and then you go. Hierarchy tends keeps things simple. But I went into the Army at a young age (17) and my experience there had a profound effect on me. I know that some people would rather not deal with the ranks and ceremonies. I love them.

Enough old coot stuff. Maybe it's not that way anymore, and what I've said is probably of no help to you at all.

Good luck.

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