Procurement Workforce Development (Part I)

Procurement Workforce Development (Part I)

I was recently invited by the National Contract Management Association (Bethesda Chapter) to lead a training seminar on developing contracting leaders (actual title was “A Pen, a Napkin & a Dollar”; more on that in Part II).  This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as I’ve invested approximately two decades of my life focusing on the leadership, mentorship and development of contracting leaders.  My decision to join the federal procurement workforce resulted in an amazing career and the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing people on the planet.  This decision also afforded me two primary skill sets that I plan to employ for the remainder of my working days: Contracting and Leadership…Part I of this discussion will focus on the merger of these two skill sets and focus on the development of the acquisition workforce.  Part II of this discussion will address my recommended three-pronged plan to help us develop the contracting leaders of tomorrow.

Any meaningful discussion on the development of the acquisition workforce must include an understanding of the fundamental state of the profession and acquisition reform.  In a nutshell, despite being comprised of the best educated and trained workforce in recent years, the current federal contracting workforce remains fractured, under-resourced and has insufficient bandwidth to address the never ending flow of funded requirements (more on this to follow).  Regarding acquisition reform, let me first acknowledge that this isn’t a new topic; however, today’s focus on acquisition reform is not a short term initiative.  Congress, led by Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry, is looking at changes that will enhance legislation affecting both the Federal acquisition enterprise and Industry.  For example, SASC Chairman McCain, during the 30 Mar 2017 SASC Confirmation Hearing of (then) Secretary of the Air Force Nominee Dr. Heather Wilson, said “No matter how much money we spend, we won’t be able to give our Airmen the equipment they need with a lethargic Defense Acquisition System that takes too long and costs too much…”  Sen McCain is not alone in his condemnation on the Defense Acquisition system; HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry said the following during his Mar 2016 rollout of an Acquisition Reform bill “We simply can no longer afford the current acquisition system. It costs too much, it takes too long, and our troops simply don’t get enough out of it.   The system needs critical reforms…”. 

Chairman Thornberry recently released his third round of initiatives aimed at reforming the defense acquisition system (or as the HASC press release put it “…to enact reasonable, realistic reform in the Department of Defense.”).  IMHO, a major component to acquisition reform (or more specifically, the included procurement or contracting reform) is the fact that government and industry must collectively reinvest in developing (training) the contracting workforce starting with a fundamental understanding of the basics of our profession.  This lasting and effective acquisition reform will take a “whole of enterprise” approach, that is, both industry and the federal acquisition workforce must come together to affect true reform.  Specifically, the development of the contracting workforce is relevant to both government and industry leaders because both government and industry will be impacted by Congressional efforts to reform the acquisition system and further develop the contracting workforce.   HASC Chairman Thornberry reinforced this point by conducting in-depth surveys, meetings and hearings with industry and government acquisition leaders to gain their perspectives on challenges with the current acquisition system (to include workforce development issues).  These inputs, along with those from academia, think tanks, acquisition leaders and others informed his Acquisition Reform Bill and both the 2016 and 2017 National Defense Authorization Acts.  Chairman Thornberry is reportedly continuing this practice with the release of “Acquisition Reform 2017”.

As you can see, Congress has been clear in their laser like focus on acquisition reform (to include workforce development).  Specifically, in 2008, Congress authorized the formation of the “Department of Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund” (or DAWDF) in Section 1705 of title 10, United States Code (U.S.C.) (hearafter, DAWDF of Fund) which directs the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish the Fund to provide funding for the recruitment, training, and retention of DoD acquisition personnel.  According to the required DoD report to Congress on the utilization of the DAWDF, the DoD reports a 32% growth in the Defense acquisition workforce (from 111,000 in 2008 to 146,000 in 2016) and an increase in workforce certification of 17.1% (from 58.3% in 2008 to 75.4% in 2016).

Allow me to reiterate my assessment of the federal procurement workforce.  Despite being comprised of the best educated and trained workforce in recent years, the current federal contracting workforce remains fractured, under-resourced and has insufficient bandwidth to address the never ending flow of funded requirements.  This is evidenced by the large number of GAO reports and the large number of contractors being called on to augment the federal acquisition teams. 

We’ve learned long ago that leadership is all about the people and procurement leadership is no exception.  Procurement leaders need to double down on workforce development to help mitigate the impacts of what many, to include Maj Gen Casey Blake, head of Air Force Contracting, have termed the “bathtub effect” — this term is used to describe the current procurement workforce consisting of a high number of experienced workers at, or approaching, retirement age and a lot of young workers with limited experience; what’s been missing, however, is depth or requisite experience in the middle ranks.  The good news, according to Tim DiNapoli, Director Acquisition and Sourcing Management Issues at GAO, this trend is improving; however, as Steven Frost once wrote, “…we have miles to go before we sleep…and miles to go before we sleep…” 

Industry must be included in these workforce development discussions.   To remain competitive and relevant in the federal marketplace, industry must actively invest in the training and development of their government engagement professionals (this includes, at a minimum, their Contract Managers, Business Development professionals, and Account Managers).  These government engagement professionals must cultivate a fundamental understanding of this amazing profession of ours.  Doing so will better posture their teams to help the federal purchasing offices “get to yes”.  Industry needs to know how to navigate procurement laws and regulations and be prepared to provide actionable solutions to federal contracting teams.  To be successful in today’s hyper competitive environment, industry professionals must understand that the may soon find themselves, if not already, dealing with a younger and less experienced workforce than they have in the past.  This means industry teams can no longer afford to sit back and respond to RFPs.  Gone are the days when industry can simply rely solely on the contracting offices to develop acquisition solutions on their own.  Industry, specifically small and medium sized businesses should take a page from the Tier 1 defense contractors and begin collaborating with the government to develop solutions (of course, within existing laws and regulations).  In short, industry must equip their government engagement workforce to help their Federal contracting counterparts to “get to yes”.

So this brings me to my bottom-line takeaway, Procurement Reform (or more specifically, its Workforce Development sub-topic) requires a redoubled investment in the mentoring, coaching, and training of Government and Industry professionals in order to overcome existing experience or bandwidth gaps and to ensure our nation has to products and services necessary to accomplish its mission. 

For more on this topic and to see our recommended way forward, see Part II of this blog post “A Pen, a Napkin and a Dollar”.

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Jamie Rhone
J. M. Rhone is a former Air Force Contracting Officer and leader who has led contracting units throughout the Air Force (to include Iraq and Afghanistan).
Jamie Rhone

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Jamie Rhone

J. M. Rhone is a former Air Force Contracting Officer and leader who has led contracting units throughout the Air Force (to include Iraq and Afghanistan).

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