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Restructuring the Workforce: It is the right thing to do.

Posted by Vern Edwards, 29 March 2010 · 5,427 views

I have long argued that the structure of the contracting workforce is out of balance. Most contracting work is simple and repetitive, and includes a large amount of administrative and clerical work, yet most of the 29,000+ people in the contracting workforce (excluding 1101s) are 1102 contract specialists, with 1105 purchasing agents being a very small minority and 1106 procurement technicians/clerks being virtually nonexistent. I have proposed that the government reduce the number of 1102s and hire more 1105s and procurement technicians/clerks (1106s).

It looks like I have won over one very important person. See Steve Kelman's blog at Federal Computer Week, the entry entitled, "A practical way to spice things up for new contracting employees," http://fcw.com/Blogs...sting-work.aspx.

I wrote at some length about this topic in the August 12, 2009 issue of The Government Contractor, in an article entitled, ?Throwing People At The Problem⎯Massive Hiring Will Not Revitalize The Acquisition Workforce.? In that piece I focused on workforce structure, job design, and training, and said the following about workforce structure:

Much of the contracting work that is now being done by contract specialists is really purchasing agent work. Take a look at OPM?s position classification standard for GS-1105 purchasing agents, available at www.opm.gov/fedclass/gs1105.pdf. Take note of the section entitled ?Distinguishing Between Purchasing and Contracting Work,? which appears on page 3. Now look at the most recent (2007) Federal Procurement Data System Federal Procurement Report, pages 12?16, available at www.fpdsng.com/fpr_reports_fy_07.html It shows the distribution of individually reported contract actions by dollar value and type of action. Only 7 percent of reported actions were worth over $100,000, the simplified acquisition threshold, and only 18 percent of those were for new contracts. The majority of everything else was for orders against and modifications to existing contracts. Granted, many orders and modifications are complex and for large dollars (although dollar value is not necessarily an indication of complexity), but it is clear that most contracting work is relatively simple transactions, most of which are the work of purchasing agents, not contract specialists.

Because they do simpler work, purchasing agents need not have college degrees and receive lower pay than contract specialists, and they do not need as much training. Yet the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) reported that in 2008 the Government employed 29,707 GS-1102 contract specialists, and only 3,186 purchasing agents. See ?FY 2008 Annual Report on the Federal Acquisition Workforce,? available at www.fai.gov/pdfs/FAI%20FY08%20Annual%20Report%20_Final%2029%20jul%2009.pdf. The Government could hire and train more purchasing agents than contract specialists for the same money. Instead, the Government is hiring people with college degrees, many with advanced degrees, to do work that requires only a high school education or perhaps two years of college at most. It is then spending more money than necessary to provide them with training that most of them will never need or use for the simple work they mainly do. It is assigning degreed people to do work that in a few years will bore the best of them to death.

Hand in hand with the workforce structure problem is the problem of contract specialist job design. Over the last two decades, Government acquisition managers have turned contract specialists, supposedly professionals, into clerks. Walk into a contracting office today and you will see little cubicles dominated by computer workstations. Contract specialists spend a large portion of their workday, if not most of it, entering data into information systems for the use of others?what a colleague has described as ?chasing electrons.? Systems like Procurement Desktop Defense, known as PD2, a component of the Standard Procurement System, and myriad other such ?automated? contract writing systems, have come to dominate the consciousness of the contracting workforce. Contracting cubicles are flooded by a seemingly never-ending rain of bulletins about this or that system change or ?fix,? or this or that data entry error to be avoided.

Look at OPM?s position classification standard for GS-1106 procurement clerks and technicians, available at www.opm.gov/fedclass/gs1106.pdf. Read the job description on pages 3?6. That work is being done by contract specialists today, who have little if any clerical support. It is not too much to say that those duties often constitute the majority of their work. Thus, the Government is hiring and paying college graduates, many with advanced degrees, to be clerks. Occupied by clerical duties, they do not have the time to do the kind of strategizing, planning, process development and contract administration that should be their primary concern. By hiring fewer contract specialists and more procurement clerks and technicians, the Government could reduce its labor and training costs, free contract specialists to do more substantive and complex work, improve contract specialist morale and improve retention.

The most populous pay grade in the 1102 workforce is GS-12, followed by GS-13 and GS-11, in that order. The average 1102 pay grade is 11.75. The average grade among 1105s is 7.11. Among 1106s the average grade is 6.14. Our threadbare government is paying relatively high salaries for the performance of relatively simple work. In more than one agency, GS-14s are dong simplified acquisitions.

1102s should be doing complex contracting work, such as strategizing, writing or editing statements of work, analyzing risk, writing plans and special contract clauses, writing proposal preparation instructions and developing evaluation factors for award, advising evaluation teams and reviewing evaluation documentation, performing tradeoff analyses, developing pre-negotiation objectives, negotiating prices and equitable adjustments, resolving claims and disputes, writing final decisions under the Disputes clause, determining cost allowability, negotiating data rights, and developing solutions to contracting problems. They should not have to write synopses and do routine solicitation tasks, like identifying prescribed contract clauses. They definitely should not have to spend significant amounts of time entering data into fields on a computer screen. When 1102s have to spend time doing administrative and clerical tasks instead of being active participants in contract formation and contract administration decision-making and giving contracting advice to others in acquisition, the career field loses prestige and influence.

Some object to the idea of bringing ?low-skilled? 1105s and 1106s back into contracting offices. (One commenter at Steve's blog accused Steve and me of reading "dusty" books and living in the past.) They worry about a return of the old ?caste system? which divided office members into those with college degrees and those without. No one should think of 1105s and 1106s as "low-skilled." That may have been true in the past, but in the future they will have to be very well trained. Consider the military, which uses noncommissioned officers to do purchasing agent work. OJT programs for military personnel are quite good. No one who has known and worked with those personnel, as I have, would consider them ?low-skilled.? They are among the most highly skilled and motivated people I know. For good people without college degrees, the return of 1105 and 1106 positions would open many career opportunities. And those jobs would be a good place to learn some contracting while working on a degree part time. Upon graduation, qualified 1105s and 1106s should be welcomed to compete for entry level 1102 positions.

A different idea is that the government should hire more 1105s and 1106s, but keep 1102 numbers at the current levels of about 29,000+. The government must assign the right people to the right work. Large acquisitions do account for most of the contracting dollars, but they account for very few of the contract actions above the micropurchase threshold. If we assign the simpler work to purchasing agents and the administrative and clerical work to procurement technicians/clerks, we will not need nearly so many 1102s, which means that we could hire proportionately more 1105s and 1106s. Even for large acquisitions, much of the paperwork could be done by procurement clerks. Many actions which show up as large dollar acquisitions are relatively simple, such as exercises of options and funding mods. Procurement clerks could do most of the paperwork associated with such actions, subject to 1102 contracting officer review and signature. Procurement clerks could prepare synopses and do all of the reporting. No, we need to replace 1102s with 1105s and 1106s. This will free 1102s to do the more challenging work and increase their prestige. Retention of all 29,000+ 1102s would neither be necessary nor cost effective. The workload data do not support it.

In a private communication with Steve Kelman, I wrote:

I think that restructuring of the contracting workforce is the single most important and useful acquisition reform that agencies could make. It would greatly reduce not only salary costs, but the challenges of recruitment and retention and the challenges and costs of training. It would result in better retention of the top-notch young 1102s, who, and you must believe me, are terribly disappointed with the quality of the work that is being assigned to them. Many of them bitterly complain to me that they were recruited with promises that they would be "business advisors" to program managers, only to find themselves doing simplified acquisitions and placing simple orders against task and delivery order contracts while sitting in front of a computer terminal in a 6' x 6' cubicle. They are missing the adventure of contracting that they were promised.

Workforce restructuring would be painful and slow. There is no central workforce management organization in the Executive Branch. Each agency is a kingdom and each contracting office is a fiefdom within. There are many reasons not to restructure. Many managers will not like to admit that their office does mainly simple work. They will prefer to say that they conduct ?complex? acquisitions. Managing a staff of 1105s is not as prestigious as managing a staff of 1102s, and management grades are lower. Moreover, managers simply don't like giving up what they already have. It will take top-level leadership to prompt agencies and contracting offices to assign the right people to the right work, and leadership in contracting is in short supply these days. If you oppose restructuring, don't worry. Nothing is going to happen any time soon. 1102s and the work that they are supposed to do will continue to suffer.

It is hard for today's young 1102s to imagine a world in which 1102s do mainly professional and complex work, assisted by others who do the routine administrative and clerical work and in which 1105s do the relatively simple buys. The world in which they work today is all that they know and it does not seem strange to them. But I and others like me have watched the career field lose the prestige and organizational influence that it once had, and we are troubled and saddened. If I were looking for a career today, I would not choose contracting. I would be bored to death. If a bright young person whom I know and care for were to ask me about an 1102 job, I would advise against it. Except for the challenge of having to do too much with too little, most of the work simply is not very interesting. I know that this is not true in every office, but it is true in far too many offices.

If you are an 1102 with a long time to serve until retirement, you cannot be neutral about this. This is your career I'm talking about.

I just got back from NCMA's 2-day Aerospace & Defense contracting conference. What I concluded is that while the workforce may indeed be in need of restructuring, what's even more urgent is to change out the leadership and replace them with people who are knowledgeable and experienced in contracting.

I listened to 2 or 3 ex-DCMA leaders, 4 or 5 contractor VPs and Senior VPs of contracting, and all I heard was plattitudes and flag-waving slogans. I'm quite sure that giving such speeches is a core competency, but I'm also quite sure there were people in the audience who had more than slogans to share. I met an O-5 contracting officer just back from three tours in Iraq managing LOGCAP III. Now HE had some lessons learned and he was eager to share them with his peers ... but never had the chance.

Anyway I don't disagree with your position(s) but would rather see leaders be held accountable for the numerous sustained protests and failed oversight that has marked their agencies ... by being replaced with competent people who get the job done.
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You are absolutely right on with this line of thinking relative to strategic workforce management. What smart organization doesn't align it's work with skill sets and salary levels/pay scales? All too often GS-12 & 13 1102's are bogged down in considerable work that is ... per OPM ... appropriate for 1104s, 1105s, or 1106s. Consider this, would it be smart for a Contracting Officer to award a contract where the various labor categories ... i.e. clerical, technical, exectutive ... were paid the at the executive level hourly rate? I think not.
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Restructuring the workforce in accordance with the workload makes sense and, based on my observations, things are currently out of balance. I have had one too many students in my level 2 classes that have never done anything more than make purchase card transactions. Having said that, I don't think that we should start from the current OPM position descriptions for 1102, 1105, and 1106. Those descriptions are 27, 17, and 18 years old, respectively. They were written before the days of IDIQ mania, SPS, FedBizOpps, etc. The orders of yesterday are not as complex as many of the orders of today and I would be reluctant to assign some of the ordering workload to an 1105. As such, I think that the first step to restructuring the workforce is to thoughtfully rewrite the position descriptions for the 1102, 1105, and 1106 series based on the makeup of the current workload. Once it has been determined who should be doing what, then we can begin to develop some metrics on what the workforce should look like, given the current workload.
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carl r culham
Apr 01 2010 11:15 AM
Your approach to restructuring and the decision points are very appropriate for discussion to get to the pain you mention. However the discussion on restructureing needs to consider the 1101 position. In 1977 the 1101 series accounted for 23% of the combined person power of 1105s, 1101s and 1102s, in 2008 the 1101 series accounts for 48%. Further views show that the average grade of an 1101 went down since 1977 while average grade of 1105s and 1102s have gained ground and while the combined total of 1105, 1102 and 1101's grew two-fold since 1977 the 1101 series numbers increased almost 5 times. With these basic numbers in mind seems that somewhere within the discussion on mix of workforce and the cost benefit to having more 1105's and 1106's versus 1102's the same considerations should be applied with regard 1101's.
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I would be glad to consider 1101s if I knew what they are doing. There are almost as many of them as 1102s. I don't know if they are buying or doing more general administrative work. I don't know if they all work in contracting offices or elsewhere. I know that some of them are doing grants and cooperative agreements, but I don't know what else they do. Do you know? I'm not sure that there is a single answer that applies to all agencies.

What I do know is that 1102s are doing too many simple buys and too much administrative and clerical work and that someone else ought to be doing that and letting the 1102s do the truly professional work.
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