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The Good News and The Bad News

Posted by Vern Edwards, 08 December 2008 · 703 views

Last week, at the 2008 Nash & Cibinic Report Roundtable, several panels addressed the issue of the quality of the acquisition workforce. The good news is that agencies are hiring some first rate interns. That?s also the bad news. We are bringing in some really smart and eager people, but we are not ready for them?to educate and train them and to prepare them to take over in the future. We are putting those bright new people into the hands of people with whom we are not entirely satisfied, into chaotic office environments that are leadership-free zones, and into an inadequate classroom training establishment. We are not ready for them, and that is a potential catastrophe, because the very best of them will not stick around if we don?t get our act together to make contracting work challenging and rewarding.

Smart people want to work with competent, inspiring people, people who know their field and who are excited and energized about their work, people who know how to mentor and develop the newcomers and are eager to do so. I have spoken with many terrific interns who were attracted to contracting by the sales pitch about being ?business advisors,? only to find that they are grinding away in a chaotic environment in which no one seems to be playing at the top of their game and working with people who spend most of their time clacking away at a computer keyboard instead of ?advising? anybody. If, when I was recruited, I had worked in the kind of office that I so often see today, I would not have stayed in the contracting field.

We need a tightly structured and closely monitored government-wide OJT system, government-wide mentoring guidelines and standards, and an entirely new classroom curriculum⎯a curriculum that emphasizes the basics. Look at the 2009 DAU Catalog course descriptions for CON 100 through CON 353, http://www.dau.mil/c...catalog2009.pdf, pp. 35-46. Where among the Level I courses are the courses entitled: Introduction to Acquisition Functions and Processes, Introduction to Needs and Requirements, Introduction to Contract Types, Introduction to Contractor Selection and Contract Award, Introduction to Contract Pricing, Introduction to Commercial Pricing Practices, Introduction to Service Contract Pricing, Introduction to Contract Management? What do we have instead? We have: ?Shaping Smart Business Arrangements,? ?Mission-Support Planning,? ?Mission-Planning Execution,? ?Mission-Performance Assessment,? and ?Mission-Focused Contracting,? propagandistic bull----. CON 100, Shaping Smart Business Arrangements, is the very first course. The newbies get a grand total of four days in which to learn how to ?describe? and ?explain? various things, except how to research, understand, and apply the Federal Acquisition Regulation. And don't tell me that the content is there, even if the course titles are goofy, because it's not.

Look at the content of CON 235, Advanced Contract Pricing, which is on catalog page 42. (There is no Basic Contract Pricing.) Here are the course objectives:

Objectives: Those who successfully complete this course will be able to:

? Use inferential statistics and hypotheses testing;
? Analyze the relationship between two or more variables, describe that relationship using regression analysis, and defend the appropriateness of the model;
? Perform cost-risk analysis to support pre-negotiation objectives;
? Integrate quantitative techniques in a cost/price estimate;
? Conduct market research on a given procurement item; and
? Conduct a price analysis of a commercial item as broadly defined by Federal Acquisition Regulation criteria.

Now I ask you: What percentage of contract specialists are using inferential statistics, hypothesis testing, or regression analysis, say, even once a year? How many readers think that you can teach the average person in our innumerate society, who has not already passed a basic course in statistics, how to do all of the things listed in the course objectives in ten days, which is the length of the course? Can you show the average student how its done? Yes. Can you teach the average student how to do it? No. In any case, why do we want to teach them those things? If we want them to learn those things we should send them to college courses in probability and statistics and regression analysis. But we aren't developing social scientists, we're supposedly developing contract specialists. Instead or regression analysis (i.e., learning curves), why aren?t we teaching them how to calculate the annual cost of one service employee, including wages, fringe benefits, taxes, and insurance, and how to use that information to calculate the annual cost of a workforce comprised of X such employees. Why aren't we teaching them how various commercial sectors set the prices of their products and services? (Why aren't we making them read: Power Pricing: How Managing Price Transforms the Bottom Line and The Price Advantage?)

I could go on forever about the inadequacies of the DAU curriculum, and DAU thinks that I have. They developed a briefing about me for their Board of Visitors. One criticism of me was that, ?When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,? which I admit got a laugh out of me. There are good people teaching at DAU, people who know that DAU must change in order to be truly effective. The DAU curriculum is only a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of the lack of clear thinking, vision, and competent leadership in the acquisition community. Lacking those things, intern programs will ultimately fail to do anything more than put butts in chairs in front of computers, except for those very few in which first rate mentors are systematically at work. Unfortunately, there aren?t nearly enough first-rate mentors, which is why the new hiring efforts are tragic. We?re wasting our most precious possession: Our future.

If you agree, write to the Obama transition team, http://change.gov. I know, I know. But at least that?s doing something.

Vern




You are correct. Unfortunately there is no clear and concise STANDARDIZED training for interns. I've worked with a couple -- and it depended entirely on their supervisor as to whether they learned anything. During the internship they were supposed to be exposed to the various types of contracting: they learned instead to be computer clerks. They needed 'mentors' but didn't have them. One got sick during the internship and almost got fired because of it. No feedback, training, encouragement, planning, or respect. Only one is still a Federal employee, and that was in spite of their former supervisor. The 'intern coordinator' told them 'not to call him'.

Training for 1102's used to start with a month long 'basics' class. You had other 'newbies' to bounce ideas and questions off. You had a support system from the staff. The information from that class has now been condensed into 'on line' classes -- not worthless, but just about. You have to KNOW the material before the on line courses work. In the hurry to put 1102's 'on the street', the boat has been missed.

The other major problem I see is the lack of support from procurement techs or office staff. Management has virtually eliminated support staff. When you are paying a GS-12 to make copies or fax, something is wrong. I'm not too proud to make copies or fax something, but it means I can't be doing something else. It also means that in order to do my job I end up doing work on weekends or holidays. Then you end up with burn-out, which can cause errors. Vicious circle. Procurement Techs used to be the training area for 1102's. Now, unless they have a college degree, they are considered worthless. I worked hard for my degrees, BUT I know lots of people with degrees who can't tie their own shoes without help. Some of the smartest people I know were 'only techs' when they started.

Recommendation: reinstitute the procurement tech (1106) career field. It would give a 'progression ladder' plus have the added benefit of supporting us 'old folks'. There is information I can share, (as was shared with me), but I have no one to give it to.
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