A practical way to spice things up for new contracting employees

Give high-school grads some of the routine work, so the specialists can engage their minds with bigger challenges.

One of the biggest problems for getting new hires to stay in the contracting workforce is that they are given clerical-style work to execute, say, simple orders off the GSA schedules or other very small purchases that require little skill. Except maybe for the very first few weeks on the job when a person may be starting from close to scratch, this is a terrible idea, that demotivates these new employees and dramatically underuses the talents of these people, who have college degrees, often with business majors, and often some significant work experience.

Vern Edwards, a smart procurement observer and trainer with whom I sometimes disagree but always respect, has been arguing recently that a solution to this problem is for the government to make more use of the job classifications GS-1105 ("purchasing agent") and GS-1106 ("procurement clerk"). The idea would be to use people, who would not need a college degree, to do this kind of work.

A little history here. We used to have a lot more 1105's doing small purchases, but the introduction of the government credit card in the 1990's eliminated the need for many of these people, because transactions under $2,500 came increasingly to be done directly by the end user, using the credit card. So a good deal of the procurement workforce downsizing of the 1990's involved eliminating most of these positions.

This was a good idea, but it went too far. We still have small purchases being done out of contracting shops, and, if there are no 1105's to do them, they get assigned to young contract specialists. However, it makes much more sense to give this work to people who don't seek an opportunity to be involved in complicated, discretion-filled work and who need jobs that can be properly performed by people with a high school education.

Making this switch is a win-win -- it gives useful work to high school grads, while allowing college grads to get greater exposure to work that is more challenging for them. It also saves the government salary money, because one should not be hiring contract specialists for work that lower-graded purchasing agents could do equally well. As Edwards points out, the military uses enlisted people -- high-school graduates -- to make many of these small purchases.

A bunch of policy issues need to be resolved -- different agencies could of course try different approaches, in my view. One is whether these people need to have college degrees. I have strong views on this -- I think college degrees are not only unnecessary, they are probably undesirable at this level. College grads these days are going to want work that requires more judgment and challenge than very simple purchases.

A second question is whether these 1105's should be warranted (i.e. have the right to sign contracts). Edwards' view is that they should not be warranted beyond the micro-purchase threshold level (the standard limit for credit card purchases); he feels that on anything above that, a contract specialist should review the work. I am inclined to disagree -- I think, based on performance, 1105's with experience should be able to get warrants for higher dollar amounts.

Some agencies, such as the Veterans Affairs Department, have been using 1105's. I ran into a senior procurement official at the Fed 100 dinner and discussed this idea with her, and she liked it as well. Agencies should go for this.